Horse Racing Industry Relies on Immigrants
The U.S. migrant workforce in the horse racing industry has been working in fear since President Trump started in office. The administration has lived up to its campaign promise, and the horse racing industry is feeling the squeeze as ICE raids and inadequate visa system hurts industry workers.
“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.
While Romans won’t employ illegal immigrants to exercise and care for his horses, he does rely on H-2B visas to make sure his foreign workers are all legal and above board. An H-2B visa is a temporary work permit used by all sorts of seasonal industries, like landscaping and tourism. They are in extraordinarily high demand
Less than 70,000 H-2B visas are issued each year. Yet when the round of 33,000 H-2B visas were made available on Jan. 1 this year, the applications submitted covered more than 81,000 positions. That represented nearly three times more than the number of applications submitted on Jan. 1 last year.
The bureaucracy frustrates Romans and others in the horse racing and betting industry.
“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.”
An immigration attorney representing immigrants in the racing industry noted the frustration of the process.
“We had a whole series of them denied last year,” said Will Velie, an Oklahoma immigration attorny 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.”
Immigration enforcement has hit racetracks within the past year. 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.
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.”
The number of grooms and hotwalkers has declined at many racetracks, and skilled labor requiring experience and long hours is making it more difficult for trainers and industry personnel that rely on migrant workers to assist them with their business. Turnover I the workforce is great for those type of jobs.
“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.”
The author and company contributed to the Guardian and its reporting for this story.