WASHINGTON — Black farmers and American Indians who say the United States discriminated against them and took their money for decades are a step closer to winning long-awaited government settlements.
Under legislation passed by the Senate on Friday, black farmers who claim discrimination at the hands of the Agriculture Department would receive almost $1.2 billion. American Indians who say they were swindled out of royalties by the Interior Department would split $3.4 billion. Both cases have languished for more than a decade, and plaintiffs say beneficiaries are dying off.
"The Senate finally did the right thing," said John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association. "They stepped up and told the world civil rights still matter in America."
The legislation was approved in the Senate by voice vote Friday and sent to the House. The money had been held up for months in the chamber as Democrats and Republicans squabbled over how to pay for it.
President Barack Obama praised the Senate for finally passing the bill and urged the House to move forward on it. He said his administration is also working to resolve separate lawsuits filed against the department by Hispanic and female farmers.
"While these legislative achievements reflect important progress, they also serve to remind us that much work remains to be done," he said.
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont. and the lead plaintiff in the Indian case, said two people who would have been beneficiaries had died on her reservation this week. "It's 17 below and the Blackfeet nation is feeling warm," she said. "I don't know if people understand or believe the agony you go through when one of the beneficiaries passes away without justice."
Lawmakers from both parties have said they support resolving the claims of discrimination and mistreatment by federal agencies. But the money has been caught up in a fight over spending and deficits. Republicans repeatedly objected to the settlements when they were added on to larger pieces of legislation. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., satisfied conservative complaints by finding spending offsets to cover the cost.
The legislation also includes a one-year extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which gives grants to states to provide cash and other assistance to the poor, and several American Indian water rights settlements in Arizona, Montana and New Mexico sought by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
In the Indian case, which has been in the courts for almost 15 years, at least 300,000 Native Americans claim they were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887 for things like oil, gas, grazing and timber. The plaintiffs would share the settlement.
Cobell was confident about passage in the House, where the two settlements already have passed twice as part of larger pieces of legislation.
For the black farmers, it is the second round of funding from a class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999 over allegations of widespread discrimination by local Agriculture Department offices in awarding loans and other aid. It is known as the Pigford case, named after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was an original plaintiff.
The government already has paid out more than $1 billion to about 16,000 black farmers, with most getting about $50,000. The new money is intended for people — some estimates say 70,000 or 80,000 — who were denied earlier payments because they missed deadlines for filing. The individual amounts depend on how many claims are successfully filed.
The bill passed Friday would be partially paid for by diverting dollars from a surplus in nutrition programs for women and children and by extending customs user fees.
The Obama administration has moved aggressively to resolve the discrimination cases after most of them spent a decade or longer in the courts. Last month, the Agriculture Department offered American Indian farmers who say they were denied farm loans a $680 million settlement.
National Black Farmers Association: http://www.blackfarmers.org/
Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov