A federal judge has put the brakes on a nearly $4 billion Biden administration effort intended to provide debt relief to farmers of color, noting that the program doesn’t even consider the financial status of applicants — just their race.
The relief program, launched in March under Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act, paid up to 120 percent of the loans for farmers or ranchers who are black, Hispanic, Latino, American Indian or Alaskan native and Asian American or Pacific Islander.
The $3.8 billion initiative drew an April lawsuit in Wisconsin Federal Court by 12 white farmers and ranchers from nine states — who said they were excluded from the program due to their race.
Judge William Griesbach issued a temporary restraining order Thursday halting the program while the case is decided.
Griesbach pointed out that the United States Department of Agriculture provided the debt relief “without actually considering the financial circumstances of the applicant,” and that there is no evidence of “intentional discrimination” by the agency in recent agriculture subsidies or pandemic relief efforts.
The “only consideration in determining whether a farmer or rancher’s loans should be completely forgiven is the person’s race or national origin,” Griesbach wrote. “Plaintiffs are completely excluded from participation in the program based on their race.”
“The obvious response to a government agency that claims it continues to discriminate against farmers because of their race or national origin is to direct it to stop: it is not to direct it to intentionally discriminate against others on the basis of their race and national origin,” Griesbach wrote in his decision.
Congress “cannot discriminate on the basis of race,” he added.
The USDA continued to implement the loan relief program after the lawsuit was filed, and will review the judge’s decision, the agency told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“We respectfully disagree with this temporary order and USDA will continue to forcefully defend our ability to carry out this act of Congress and deliver debt relief to socially disadvantaged borrowers,” the spokesperson told the outlet. “When the temporary order is lifted, USDA will be prepared to provide the debt relief authorized by Congress.”