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Latino farmers' discrimination suit back in court

  • Story Highlights
  • Latino farmers say they were refused USDA aid that was available to white farmers
  • One major issue: Can individual suits be combined into a class-action suit?
  • Similar suit by black farmers in 1997 was given class-action status
  • Former agriculture secretary says department has long history of discrimination
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A group of Latino farmers is scheduled to return to federal court Thursday to argue that the government has discriminated against them in providing loans, disaster relief and other financial aid.

Farmer John Carillo says he was turned down for a USDA loan because of discrimination.

Farmer John Carillo says he was turned down for a USDA loan because of discrimination.

The suit, known as the Garcia case, alleges Latino farmers were denied financial aid from 1981 to 2000 that white farmers were able to get.

"The discrimination we're talking about has been well-documented," said attorney Stephen Hill, who represents the Latino farmers.

The farmers filed the discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2000 and sought class-action status, meaning that all the individual complaints and suits could be heard as one. A judge denied class-action status, leaving 81 complaints to be settled individually in several states. The class could have included 20,000 farmers, the government said in court. Video Watch some Latino farmers tell their stories »

A hearing in the case was initially was scheduled for Tuesday, but was postponed for two days -- and could be delayed even longer. Hill has filed a motion asking the federal court to postpone the hearing pending a ruling from the Supreme Court on the class-action issue, or until November 23, whichever is later.

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The Justice Department, which is representing the Agriculture Department, has opposed class-action status, saying each case "should be handled on its individual merits."

The Justice Department also is not interested in settling the case, government attorney Lisa Ann Olson told a federal district court judge in an August hearing.

"It is not in the interests of the United States to do so," Olson said. "To settle at this point would be picking a number out of thin air."

The farmers say if they are forced to fight the government individually, many families will not be able to afford the legal battle and their discrimination cases may never be heard.

Thursday's hearing in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is being held to determine whether any progress has been made in the case and to set a schedule and a mechanism for how to get the cases resolved, U.S. District Judge James Robertson said at the August hearing.

The Latino farmers note that African-Americans who filed an identical discrimination lawsuit against the government in 1997 were granted class-action status and have been awarded about $1 billion in settlements to 15,000 farmers.

The farmers also point out that former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman testified before Congress in 1997 that the USDA had a long history of discrimination. Glickman served as agriculture secretary from 1995 to 2001.

"Good people lost their farmland not because of bad weather, bad crops, but because of the color of their skin," Glickman told lawmakers.

Farmer John Carillo says he's one of those people. His father built a thriving family business in Salinas, California, that included acres of chili and tomato fields, a packing house and a cooler for production.

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It's all gone now. Carillo said he applied for a USDA loan after devastating floods in 1995 but was denied.

"Our American dream was to have the whole family work together and to succeed as a Hispanic farming company," he told CNN.

CNN correspondent Thelma Gutierrez contributed to this report.

All About Hispanic and Latino IssuesU.S. Department of Agriculture

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