The unglamorous hours in the stables means racing has long relied upon undocumented employees but recent federal raids raise pressing questions
When it comes to its workforce, American horse racing could be galloping towards a crisis.
A visa program that serves the racing industry poorly plus a dearth of US employees willing to do the sports grunt work the grooming, the exercise-riding and the hot-walking of racehorses have all along left racing heavily reliant upon undocumented employees from Mexico and elsewhere in Central and South America.
But now, the recent spate of raids by immigration agents and threats to pull federal funding to sanctuary cities has many US racetracks and horse-farms rattled.
When you let something go on this long, all of a sudden it only blows up. And when something blows up, theres going to be some collateral damage of some very good, hard-working people who shouldnt be caught in this trap at all, said Mike Campbell, a trainer and owner, and president of the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemans Association.
At the tracks, people are scared, told Will Velie, an Oklahoma-based immigration lawyer, whose clients includes many trainers and what are known as backstretch workers. The problem is, the recent immigration crackdown Trumps executive order makes clear that almost any migrant living illegally in America could be targeted is likely to put the pinch on an industry already struggling to find qualified workers with papers.
Even if racehorse trainers want to hire documented employees merely, or put existing undocumented workers on a path to citizenship, they have been tripped over by an immigration system riddled with obstacles. Undocumented migrants working in the US must return to their home country in order to gain work authorization. Once home, however, they can be barred from returning to the US for up to 10 years.
The H-2B visa one of the few visas available to backstretch employees is capped at 66,000 a year. The rivalry is fierce. For the first 33,000 H-2B visas issued in 2017, there were some 82, 100 applications. And only a small number are ever issued to workers in the racing industry anyway.
Whats more, the H-2B returning worker exemption, which allowed existing H-2B holders to keep returning and working in the US on the same visa, ended last September. This exemption was especially important to the racing industry where trainers race year-round.
Its had an effect, for sure, said Hall of Fame trainer Dale Romans. Romans is currently waiting for the green-light on 50 separate H-2B visa applications. I had 77 employees last year, and when theres all this uncertainty about whether youre going to be able to maintain that labor force, you dont know what to do.
An H-2B visa isnt the only avenue available to horsemen looking to work legally. The P1A is geared primarily towards professional athletes, such as jockeys, and a small retinue of helpers. The EB-3 visa is a petition for permanent residency, but is time-consuming and costly. Because of limited visa alternatives, Romans thinks he might have to downscale if his current H-2B visa applications arent accepted.
For me, Ill have to close the doors. Theres no way Ill run an illegal workforce, especially in the environment we have today. In a perfect world wed have our own visa for the industry.[ The H-2B] is not a perfect visa for what we do.
The problem is exacerbated by a broader issue: Romans said that without foreign workers, it would be almost impossible to find Americans willing to do the labor-intensive work of grooms, riders and hotwalkers unglamorous seven-days-a-week tasks with early starts and late finishes.
And its not for wishing of trying to find them, said George Crimarco, an immigration attorney in Florida, who currently represents 500 clients involved in the industry.
As part of the H-2B visa process, trainers must show that the government had taken steps, like putting ads in papers, to fill the available task with American workers. But Crimarco said that in his 30 years as an immigration lawyer, he has yet to find one American apply for a backstretch job.
He blameds the industry for not employing what political heft it has to have already enacted altered in the immigration system to better suit the specialized needs of the industry.
Horseracing is so fragmented, Crimarco told. Theres no unifying voice.
According to Velie, undocumented workers who have false information to the I-9 work verification program, where employers decide whether run authorization documents reasonably appear to be genuine, could face expulsion if ways become the target of raids. And thats only the tip of the iceberg, he said.
But should trainers be concerned about the clock being wound back a few decades to when racetrack raids were more commonplace, scooping up sometimes hundreds of undocumented employees in one swoop, and leaving trainers with inexperienced staff who didnt know how to handle a pony?
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesperson Dani Bennet wrote in an email that no industry, regardless of size, type or location is excluded from complying with the law or being the subject of an HSI investigation.
How would the agencies that govern racing in New York and California handle any increased focus by ICE on the industries in their states? The California Horse Racing Board defers to the Department of Immigration considering the current policy for working with local enforcement agencies, a board representative wrote.
Representatives from New York failed to respond to emailed questions.
Theres little doubt that Trumps immigration crackdown has sent shockwaves through the sport. But among the people working behind the scenes, most reactions seem to swaying between misgiving on one hand, and on the other, skepticism that horse racing is likely to be the specific objectives of heightened scrutiny.
The No1 call Im get is they want me to write them a power of attorney letter, told Julio Rubio, an immigration consultant to the Horseman Benevolent and Protective Association, about the main concerns undocumented backstretch workers approach its term of office with. In example they get deported, they want to leave their children with person legal here.
But Esvin, a groom at Santa Anita racetrack, who said that he has work authorization but would like to request that his surname not be used, dismisses dreads of an immigration sweep of the way, even though he believes that as few as 10% of the grooms and hotwalkers there have papers.
If they took everyone away, who would be left to do the run? he said.
A common thread operating through racing is a said he hoped that Trump a businessman who relies on migrant labor will bring about the changes needed to reform the system in a way that will finally benefit the racing industry.
If some people are just here to run, then fine, Mike Campbell said. But give them a work permit. Devote them a pathway to be allowed to work here. And hold everybody accountable.
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