Latino lawmakers look to USDA to address civil rights issues

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Agriculture is embarking on a partnership with universities across the country in hopes of infusing its ranks with more diversity as it faces civil rights complaints from Latino farmers and ranchers.

But some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are voicing frustration, saying the agency has been dragging its feet and has yet to adequately address their concerns.

The caucus had asked for a meeting with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in October, saying members received reports from constituents indicating significant civil rights violations and discrimination by the agency.

Caucus members also pointed to a 2013 review that found noncompliance with civil rights requirements and regulations by U.S. Forest Service offices in New Mexico and Colorado.

"I am not convinced that the USDA is being as forthcoming as I would expect," said U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a New Mexico Democrat. "I look forward to pressing the secretary to provide more details that adequately address our concerns."

The USDA said this week that it's willing to meet with caucus members, but it can't address the civil rights review or other discrimination issues because of pending litigation.

The agency cited one case being heard by a federal judge in Albuquerque involving grazing permits in northern New Mexico and other cases that stem from claims of discrimination regarding the issuance and management of farm loans over a period of two decades.

Attorneys representing the New Mexico ranchers argued that the civil rights review wasn't part of the grazing case and should be addressed. The agency's general counsel said the case involves civil rights matters in general, putting it off limits for discussion.

In a letter to the caucus that was obtained by The Associated Press, the agency also defended a $1.3 billion settlement that was reached with Hispanic and women farmers over the farm loans.

The USDA argued that it had no role in adjudicating any of the claims, a task that fell to an independent contractor to ensure impartiality. That process was then reviewed by the USDA's Office of Inspector General.

Critics have said claims filed by Latinos and women have been denied at much higher rates than those of other minority groups, including black and Native American farmers who settled following separate class-action lawsuits.

U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said farmers and ranchers who have been discriminated against deserve to be made whole and that he looks forward to meeting with the secretary.

"This issue impacts the livelihood of so many in my district and the USDA must be held accountable," the New Mexico Democrat said.

Despite an indefinite delay in addressing civil rights with the caucus, the agency noted in its letter that progress is being made on other fronts and pointed to the new partnership with the nation's Hispanic-serving colleges and universities.

The USDA's Office of Advocacy and Outreach in early December signed a cooperative agreement with the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities to fund 180 paid internships at the agency. The association represents more than 470 schools.

Officials said the program will increase awareness about career opportunities as well as foster the secretary's goals of a diverse, inclusive workforce.


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