An organization led by former Trump White House adviser Stephen Miller is suing the Agriculture Department over the definition of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers that Congress used to create a $4 billion debt relief plan for minority farmers.
Republican opponents of the debt forgiveness plan that was included in a March pandemic recovery law had warned that excluding whites would lead to a lawsuit. Supporters of the debt forgiveness provisions acknowledged that a legal challenge was possible, but said forgiveness of 120 percent of debts was necessary to redress the cumulative effects of discrimination that limited opportunities for Black and other minority farmers to run or expand their operations.
The Agriculture Department is in the process of moving forward with the debt provisions and using $1 billion to expand and build the network of institutions and organizations to work with minority farmers.
The department said it would continue its work while the lawsuit is pending.
“We are reviewing the complaint and working with the Department of Justice. During this review, we will continue to implement the debt relief to qualified socially disadvantaged borrowers in the American Rescue Plan Act,” a spokesperson said.
The lawsuit challenges Sections 1005 and 1006 of the pandemic relief law as unconstitutional for using a 1990 farm bill that defines socially disadvantaged agricultural producers as those “subjected to racial or ethnic prejudices because of their identity as a member of a group without regard to their individual qualities.” Producers who are African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Asian or Pacific Islander are covered.
America First Legal is providing the lawyer for the plaintiff, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who is acting in his capacity as a farmer and rancher.
A 1992 revision to the definition added gender discrimination as a category under socially disadvantaged but the lawsuit does not address that version.
Stephen Miller, in a statement issued when the organization filed the lawsuit on Monday, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and said the legal challenge was America First Legal’s effort to carry on the fight against discrimination.
“For this reason, AFL is filing a lawsuit today against the Biden Administration to prevent it from administering programs created under the American Rescue Plan Act that discriminate against American farmers and ranchers based upon the basis of race,” Miller said.
The plaintiff, Sid Miller, and the lawsuit argue that white ethnic groups such as the Irish and Jews that have experienced bias are unfairly excluded. The lawsuit also questions who would qualify as a racial minority since neither the law nor the Agriculture Department sets any thresholds for blood lineage.
In the lawsuit, Sid Miller says he has 2 percent Black ancestry, but would be denied debt relief because his lineage is largely white.
The lawsuit, which includes a copy of the March legislation, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Fort Worth division.