WASHINGTON — For Brandon Smith, a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Texas, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that President Biden signed into law nearly a year ago was long-awaited relief.
Little did he know how much longer he would have to wait.
The legislation included $4 billion of debt forgiveness for Black and other “socially disadvantaged” farmers, a group that has endured decades of discrimination from banks and the federal government. Mr. Smith, a Black father of four who owes about $200,000 in outstanding loans on his ranch, quickly signed and returned documents to the Agriculture Department last year, formally accepting the debt relief. He then purchased more equipment for his ranch, believing that he had been given a financial lifeline.
Instead, Mr. Smith has fallen deeper into debt. Months after signing the paperwork he received a notice informing him that the federal government intended to “accelerate” foreclosure on his 46-acre property and cattle if he did not start making payments on the loans he believed had been forgiven.
“I trusted the government that we had a deal, and down here at the end of the day, the rug gets pulled out from under me,” Mr. Smith, 43, said in an interview.
Black farmers across the nation have yet to see any of Mr. Biden’s promised relief. While the president has pledged to pursue policies to promote racial equity and correct decades of discrimination, legal issues have complicated that goal.
In May 2021, the Agriculture Department started sending letters to borrowers who were eligible to have their debt cleared, asking them to sign and return forms confirming their balances. The payments, which also are supposed to cover tax liabilities and fees associated with clearing the debt, were expected to come in phases beginning in June.
But the entire initiative has been stymied amid lawsuits from white farmers and groups representing them that questioned whether the government could offer debt relief based on race.
Courts in Wisconsin and Florida have issued preliminary injunctions against the initiative, siding with plaintiffs who argued that the debt relief amounted to discrimination and could therefore be illegal. A class-action lawsuit against the U.S.D.A. is proceeding in Texas this year.
The Biden administration has not appealed the injunctions but a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said it was continuing to defend the program in the courts as the cases move forward.
The legal limbo has created new and unexpected financial strains for Black farmers, many of whom have been unable to make investments in their businesses given ongoing uncertainty about their debt loads. It also poses a political problem for Mr. Biden, who was propelled to power by Black voters and now must make good on promises to improve their fortunes.
The law was intended to help remedy years of discrimination that nonwhite farmers have endured, including land theft and the rejection of loan applications by banks and the federal government. The program designated aid to about 15,000 borrowers who receive loans directly from the federal government or have their bank loans guaranteed by the U.S.D.A. Those eligible included farmers and ranchers who have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice, including those who are Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander or Hispanic.
After the initiative was rolled out last year, it met swift opposition.
Banks were unhappy that the loans would be repaid early, depriving them of interest payments. Groups of white farmers in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Oregon and Illinois sued the Agriculture Department, arguing that offering debt relief on the basis of skin color is discriminatory, suggesting that a successful Black farmer could have his debts cleared while a struggling white farm could go out of business. America First Legal, a group led by the former Trump administration official Stephen Miller, filed a lawsuit making a similar argument in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.
Last June, before the money started flowing, a federal judge in Florida blocked the program on the basis that it applied “strictly on racial grounds” irrespective of any other factor.
The delays have angered the Black farmers that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress were trying to help. They argue that the law was poorly written and that the White House is not defending it forcefully enough in court out of fear that a legal defeat could undermine other policies that are predicated on race.
Those concerns became even more pronounced late last year when the government sent thousands of letters to minority farmers who were behind on their loan payments warning that they faced foreclosure. The letters were sent automatically to any borrowers who were past due on their loans, including about a third of the 15,000 socially disadvantaged farmers who applied for the debt relief, according to the Agriculture Department.
Leonard Jackson, a cattle farmer in Muskogee, Okla., received such a letter despite being told by the U.S.D.A. that he did not need to make loan payments because his $235,000 in debt would be paid off by the government. The letter was jarring for Mr. Jackson, whose father, a wheat and soybean farmer, had his farm equipment foreclosed on by the government years earlier. The prospect of losing his 33 cows, house and trailer was unfathomable.
“They said that they were paying off everybody’s loans and not to make payments and then they sent this,” Mr. Jackson, 55, said.
The legal fight over the funds has stirred widespread confusion, with Black and other farmers stuck in the middle. This year, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives has been fielding calls from minority farmers who said their financial problems have been compounded. It has become even harder for them to get access to credit now, they say, that the fate of the debt relief is unclear.
“It has definitely caused a very significant panic and a lot of distress among our members,” said Dãnia Davy, director of land retention and advocacy at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund.
The Agriculture Department said that it was required by law to send the warnings but that the government had no intention of foreclosing on farms, citing a moratorium on such action that was put in place early last year because of the pandemic. After The New York Times inquired about the foreclosure letters, the U.S.D.A. sent borrowers who had received notices another letter late last month telling them to disregard the foreclosure threat.
“We want borrowers to know the bottom line is, actions such as acceleration and foreclosure remain suspended for direct loan borrowers due to the pandemic,” Kate Waters, a department spokeswoman, said. “We remain under the moratorium, and we will continue to communicate with our borrowers so they understand their rights and understand their debt servicing options.”
The more than 2,000 minority farmers who receive private loans that are guaranteed by the U.S.D.A. are not protected by the federal moratorium and could still face foreclosure. Once the moratorium ends, farmers will need to resume making their payments if the debt relief program or an alternative is not in place.
Some Black farmers argue that the Agriculture Department, led by Secretary Tom Vilsack, was too slow to disburse the debt relief and allowed critics time to mount a legal assault on the law.
The Biden administration has been left with few options but to let the legal process play out, which could take months or years. The White House had been hopeful that a new measure in Mr. Biden’s sweeping social policy and climate bill would ultimately provide the farmers the debt relief they have been expecting. But that bill has stalled in the Senate and is unlikely to pass in its current form.
“While we continue to defend in court the relief in the American Rescue Plan, getting the broader relief provision that the House passed signed into law remains the surest and quickest way to help farmers in economic distress across the nation, including thousands and thousands of farmers of color,” Gene Sperling, the White House’s pandemic relief czar, said in a statement.
For Black farmers, who have seen their ranks fall from more than a million to fewer than 40,000 in the last century amid industry consolidation and onerous loan terms, the disappointment is not surprising. John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association, said that rather than hearing about more government reports on racial equity, Black farmers want to see results.
“We need implementation, action and resources to farm,” Mr. Boyd said.