Mr. MENENDEZ. Mr. President, I rise to speak of what I have addressed in the past about injustice. It is about the reality that it is no secret that decades of discrimination in lending practices at the United States Department of Agriculture have made it difficult, if not impossible, for minority farmers--specifically Hispanic and women farmers--to make a living at what they love to do, leaving many no choice but to lose their farms and ranches they have tended all their lives, in many cases from generation to generation. That is why I rise today in support of parity for Hispanic and women farmers. I rise so that all the victims of discrimination in this case are treated equally, fairly, and are adequately compensated for the damages they suffered regardless of their race or gender.
The Department of Justice's proposal to Hispanic and female victims is certainly a first step toward closing the entire book on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's discrimination. But, frankly, there appears to be some contradiction between the proposal given to these two groups and the declared objectives of providing parity among the different groups who suffered discrimination.
Here is the situation. African-American victims of discrimination are on a path to receive approximately $2.25 billion to resolve their claims. Victims who filed on time were afforded the opportunity to choose from two different tracks. First, they could present substantial evidence of discrimination which, if valid, entitled the victim to a monetary settlement of $50,000 plus relief in the form of loan forgiveness and offsets of tax liability or they could prove their claims using evidence which was reviewed by a third-party arbitrator who decided how much damages to award, if any.
This system took into account the fact that many if not most of the documents from this era were destroyed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, making it extremely difficult for victims to prove their claims, while also giving claimants the opportunity to seek more than $50,000 if their case was especially egregious and their losses were severe. There was not a cap on the amount of money awarded. There was not a cap on the number of claimants who could recover damages, which allowed the merits of each individual's claims to be the sole basis for determining what they received. That process appears to be right in line with the stated goal of determining the appropriate course of action for each claim based on the merits of the case and only on the merits. I certainly commend that approach.
However, when it comes to Hispanic and women farmers, the Justice Department has used legal maneuvers to prevent Hispanic and women farmers from achieving class status. Legal maneuvers should not be what the Department of Justice is all about; justice is what the Department should be all about.
Unfortunately, I do not believe the proposal which has been presented to the Hispanic and female victims meets that standard of justice, nor does it employ the fair method utilized in the Pigford I settlement or the equity that is needed. Instead, it puts a cap on the damages each victim could receive and on the total amount that can be awarded to all victims. This is not in parity with the Pigford I settlement and could potentially leave thousands of Hispanic and female victims with only a modicum of relief and far less justice than their counterparts.
Specifically, while Pigford I awarded a minimum of $50,000 to victims, the proposals to Hispanics and females will only award victims up to that amount. What this means is that Hispanic and female victims, even if they suffered millions of dollars in damages, lost their farms, lost their families' heritage in the process, lost their livelihoods, will not receive more than $50,000 and will not be made whole. Farmers who were denied a loan and, as a result, in the words of then-Secretary of Agriculture Glickman, ``lost their family land, not because of a bad crop, not because of a flood, but because of the color of their skin,'' will never be able to rebuild their lives and recover the land with a fraction of $50,000.
If that is not enough, the Department of Justice-imposed cap on the total amount of money that can be awarded to Hispanic and women victims could arbitrarily reduce each claimant's award far below the $50,000 individual cap. You may ask why. Here is the reason: because there are likely to be far more claims filed by Hispanic and women farmers than were filed by African-American farmers. Yet the amount allocated for Hispanic and female [Page: S7940] claims is almost $1 billion less than provided to African-American claimants. This is despite the fact that, according to the Department of Agriculture census, in the years in question--from 1982 to 1997--Hispanic- and female-operated farms far outnumbered African-American-operated farms by almost 7 to 1.
If the Department of Justice estimates are correct and approximately 80,000 valid claims will be made by African Americans through Pigford I and Pigford II, it is safe to assume that at least this many and likely many more Hispanic and female farmers who were discriminated against will file valid claims. Even using the very conservative estimate of 80,000 valid claims for Hispanics and females, a $1.3 billion overall cap will provide each claimant with about $16,625. This amount will shrink even further if there are more than the 80,000 claimants and tax forgiveness funds are counted against the $1.3 billion cap.
Think about this. Under this method, the amount each victim will receive will depend on how many other victims there were, not on the merits of each individual case. Not only is that not fair, but it is perverse because each victim will actually be punished the more the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated since the more valid claims there are, the less each victim will receive. A structure has been set up that, instead of pursuing justice and equity, actually works to the detriment of those who have already been discriminated against because the more that have been discriminated against and prove their case, the less each one will receive because of this cap.
Finally, the process proposed for administering Hispanic and female claims seems arbitrary and needlessly complicated. In contrast to Pigford claimants, Hispanic- and women-owned farms would not have the benefit of a court-approved notice or any of the procedural protections associated with a class action process.
The underlying facts of the claims made by African Americans, Hispanics, females, and Native Americans are nearly identical.
I commend the President and his administration for making some effort toward delivering justice to women and Hispanic farmers. That is why I urge the administration to guarantee that the relief to be provided to women and Hispanic farmers be just and consistent with that provided to African-American victims who filed on time. In the words of Timothy Pigford, the lead plaintiff in the Pigford case, Hispanics and females ``suffered the same discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as African American farmers.'' They suffered the same discrimination by the Department of Agriculture as African-American farmers.
Again quoting Mr. Pigford: ..... class certification is a procedural matter that does not address the underlying discrimination that is in fact admitted.
It is, in fact, admitted. There is not a dispute about whether discrimination took place. It is, in fact, admitted. The indisputable fact remains that farmers and ranchers--particularly women, African Americans, Hispanics--were denied access to U.S. Department of Agriculture loans, to farm benefits and credit services due to their race, their ethnicity, their gender. They were not given proper opportunity for recourse. In the process of being denied those opportunities, they lost, in many cases, their land or sold parts of their land to keep a little piece of it. The only thing that could be worse than the original discrimination, ironically, is if it were to treat the victims of that discrimination differently based on their race, ethnicity, or gender.
Justice for one cannot masquerade as justice for all. I applaud the USDA for taking a big step toward universal justice in this case by recognizing the need to put aside technical questions about class certification and address the underlying valid claims of discrimination.
I understand that this administration inherited this problem, like so many others, and is now in the position of cleaning up the mess left by its predecessors. I applaud them for seeking to right an injustice. But I do not think, nor can I accept that you can dispense justice when you know that the facts are such that, in fact, there is no dispute as to the discrimination, that you can dispense justice piecemeal, or that you can treat victims similarly situated, almost identically situated and harmed, with justice for some and not for all. We need to make this right. We need to make the victims whole. We need to do it fairly, justly, and soon.
I yield the floor.