Trump-backed legal group sues for debt relief for white farmers

With Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller as the plaintiff, a Trump-aligned legal group on Tuesday challenged the $4 billion debt-relief plan approved by Congress for Black and minority farmers, saying it was unconstitutional. “Americans of all races and ethnicities must have the opportunity to receive” USDA loan forgiveness, said America First Legal Foundation in announcing the suit.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Fort Worth, says U.S. history is filled with discrimination against white immigrants based on their countries of origin or religious beliefs, so white farmers should qualify for debt relief although they were not included in the legislation. Aid was directed to socially disadvantaged farmers, defined as Black, Hispanic, Native American and other minority farmers.

Supporters of loan forgiveness, such as House Agriculture chairman David Scott, said it would counteract decades of systemic discrimination that made farming a 95 percent white occupation. In 1920, one of every six farmers was Black. Scott is drafting legislation to ban discriminatory practices at the USDA and to create tax incentives to support crop and livestock sales by minority farmers.

“There has been a continued discrimination pattern, unfortunately,” for Black farmers since the abolition of slavery, said Scott during the online meeting of North American Agricultural Journalists. “So we have got to be bold here and do what is absolutely necessary to get the results we need.”

The USDA “will continue to implement the debt relief to qualified socially disadvantaged borrowers” while reviewing the lawsuit against it, said a spokesperson. The USDA also is conferring with the Justice Department. The debt relief plan obliges the USDA to pay up to 120 percent of the amount due on loans made directly to disadvantaged farmers or by private lenders through USDA loan guarantee programs. The additional 20 percent would cover taxes associated with loan forgiveness. Congress also approved a related $1 billion to improve access to land, resolve “heirs property” issues and provide legal aid to socially disadvantaged farmers.

In its lawsuit, America First Legal said attempts to remedy past discrimination were themselves discriminatory and unconstitutional, although federal law and regulations are studded with provisions to assist various groups or assure fair treatment. The government gives priority to military veterans in hiring, for instance.

Miller, a farmer and rancher whose family tree includes Irish ancestors, “sues on behalf of all farmers and ranchers in the United States who are excluded from the benefits of programs for ‘socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers’ because of their race or ethnicity,” said the lawsuit. It asks the court to bar the USDA “from implementing any racial exclusions or discriminatory racial preferences” in its programs. Although a public official, Miller participated in the lawsuit as a private citizen.

America First Legal started operation three weeks ago with the backing of former president Donald Trump with a board of directors that included Mark Meadows, a former Trump chief of staff, reported CBS News.

Its leader is Stephen Miller, known for his hard-line views on immigration while a White House adviser to Trump. The group’s name is a reference to a nationalist slogan embraced by Trump.

The lawsuit was assigned to U.S. district judge Reed O’Connor, whose court is a favorite forum for conservatives, said the Texas Tribune. “A 2007 appointee of President George W. Bush, O’Connor handed Texas several major wins” over Obama-era policies.

To read the 255-page lawsuit, click here.