'It's a bit of a nightmare': Immigration crackdown squeezes US horse racing

Daniel Ross
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Visas for foreign workers at racetracks have become harder to obtain. </span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images</span>
Visas for foreign workers at racetracks have become harder to obtain. Photograph: Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images

Last year when the new administration first moved into the White House, those industries that rely heavily on a migrant workforce braced themselves for the long-heralded immigration crackdown – none more so than those involved in horse racing, in which some were “terrified” at the thought of the anticipated purge.

One year on, the administration has lived up to that particular campaign promise. The combined effects of ICE raids, an inadequate visa system and a lack of US citizens willing to put in the long, hard hours that racetrack life demands continue to put the squeeze on an industry that’s already fighting for air in the nation’s over-crowded sports marketplace.

“The current system keeps you on such pins and needles as to whether or not you’re going to have a workforce, it’s hard to plan or try to expand or try to do anything bigger,” says veteran trainer Dale Romans, one of the sport’s most outspoken proponents of immigration reform.

Romans won’t employ illegal immigrants to exercise and care for his horses. And so, he relies on H-2B visas to make sure his foreign workers are all legal and above board. But H-2B visas – a temporary work permit used by all sorts of seasonal industries, like landscaping and tourism – are, unsurprisingly, in extraordinarily high demand. Only 66,000 such visas are issued every year. But when the latest batch of 33,000 H-2B visas were made available on 1 January this year, the number of applications submitted on that day alone covered 81,008 worker positions – more than two and a half times greater than the visa allotment, and approximately three times larger than the number of applications submitted on the same day last year.

What’s more, while Romans hasn’t as yet had an H-2B visa application denied under the new administration, he says that the application process is proving even more of a bureaucratic nightmare than usual. “There’s no rhyme or reason why they approve or deny our visas,” he says. “For me, I don’t understand why it has to be so hard.”

Will Velie, an Oklahoma-based immigration attorney with a number of clients in the racing industry, confirmed that the H-2B application process has been more turbulent than usual. “We had a whole series of them denied last year,” says Velie, who added that the applications were then unilaterally reopened by the immigration department. “We were sent a second request of evidence, we answered them, and they were approved. So, there must be some push and pull between headquarters and the field offices.”

Exacerbating the problem has been how the “returning worker” exemption – which allowed existing H-2B holders to keep returning and working in the US on the same visa – still hasn’t been reinstated after being nixed in 2016, despite much industry pressure being exerted on Washington. And this general climate of confusion is contributing to a “vast decrease” in the pool of workers looking for employment on the nation’s racetracks, says Velie.

“In the past, there would have been people walking the barns looking for work. But those people are gone,” he says. “I’m not sure if they’ve left the country, or if they’re just too scared to come out to public places like tracks. I’m not sure what’s caused it exactly. But in the last year, the knock-on effect of the rhetoric and increased enforcement has definitely taken a toll on the labor market.”

Within the past year, a number of racecourses around the country have found themselves within the crosshairs of immigration enforcement. During a targeted raid at Indiana Grand racetrack last June, eight backstretch workers were arrested, reportedly for legal issues like DUI charges and failure to appear in immigration court. In the upstate New York city of Saratoga Springs, home to Saratoga racetrack, eight men from Mexico were arrested last September.

<span class="element-image__caption">Immigrants from Central and South America are often employed as exercise riders and hotwalkers.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Mitch Wojnarowicz/AP</span>
Immigrants from Central and South America are often employed as exercise riders and hotwalkers. Photograph: Mitch Wojnarowicz/AP

While none of the men worked on the backstretch, says Albany-based immigration attorney Leonard D’Arrigo, the arrests only add to a “widespread fear” among horsemen that ICE will target the track later this year when it operates its annual summer meet. Rather than raids, however, trainers could fall foul of other enforcement measures, like an anticipated uptick in I-9 work authorization inspections, warned D’Arrigo, whose firm represents several trainers with a large national presence. “Now they want to go after the magnet for these illegal workers,” he says. “That’s why we’re seeing this shift, focusing on going after employers, not only for fines and monetary penalties but also for criminal, federal charges.”

Nor do so called “sanctuary cities” afford racetrack workers much shade – rather, the opposite could be true. That’s because ICE agents appear to be retaliating against municipalities that publicly identify themselves as sanctuary cities, says Julio Rubio, an immigration adviser to the Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association. Then there’s the Catch-22 facing undocumented workers looking to get on the right side of the law: they must return to their home country for legal work authorization, but by doing so, they can be barred from returning to the US for up to 10 years.

All of which is having an effect on the industry’s backstretch workforce, says trainer Tom Morley, currently based at Fair Grounds racetrack, in New Orleans. “Certainly here, we’ve seen a decline in the numbers of available grooms and hotwalkers,” he says. “And it’s probably only going to get worse.” Indeed, even foreign-born employees with work authorization are rattled by the immigration crackdown, some in the sport say.

According to Tommy Edwards, a Fair Grounds-based groom, a handful of his colleagues who are legally permitted to work in the US have, in the past year, returned home to their countries of origin. “Even if they’ve got their papers, they don’t understand. They’re scared, and they leave,” he says. “I’ve known a few Hispanic friends who have gone back to Mexico, to where they feel safer.”

And there’s wide agreement that ultimately, if too few foreign workers are able or willing to perform the daily duties caring for the nation’s army of racehorses – skilled work that not only requires suitable experience with these potentially dangerous animals, but the desire to put in long, unsociable hours – there’s going to be a vacuum where US citizens fail to fill the breach.

“I can’t see where any of these people interfere with American jobs,” says George Crimarco, a Florida-based immigration attorney who currently represents hundreds of clients in the horseracing industry. “[US citizens] don’t want these jobs anyway.” And trainer Dale Romans agrees.

“Horseracing’s a lifestyle,” Romans says. “You’ve just got to really love the horses to want to be involved with this sport. But there’s just too many other opportunities for people to take that aren’t manual labor jobs. We totally need this immigrant workforce. Hopefully the government sees that.”

That’s because, even when trainers have managed to find local employees to fill vacant positions, the people hired haven’t always shown the requisite skill or commitment for the job. “My three hotwalkers here are all from New Orleans. But at the same time, we’ve been through seven of them since the beginning of the meet [last November]. They’re not exactly the most reliable,” says Morley. “They come and go … It’s a little bit of a nightmare.”

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