Earlier this month, just as the Kentucky Senate moved to crack down on illegal immigration, Thoroughbred trainers were reminded just how dependent their sport is on foreign labor.
A federal immigration agent came to the Fair Grounds in New Orleans on Jan. 3 to chat with horse trainers, many of whom also race in Kentucky.
The officer said he was there, in suit and tie, on a friendly visit to urge trainers to enroll in the federal E-Verify employment database and check to make sure all backside workers are legally qualified to work in the United States.
But there was also a more ominous undertone: the implication that the next visit might not be so cordial.
"He said he is an enforcer and his job is to arrest illegal immigrants. He said next time he comes in here he would be wearing his blue jacket with his badge, and he would be arresting people," said trainer Dallas Stewart, who also races in Kentucky. "He said today 'I'm your friend and I'm trying to help you out. ... The reason people are here is for work, and you guys are employing them, and that's why we need to get it stopped.'"
Like many in the horse industry, Stewart relies on foreign workers, usually here through the federal H-2B visa program, to take care of his horses. But the guest worker program is capped at 66,000 non-agricultural unskilled workers a year for all sectors nationally. For fiscal year 2011, which began in October, more than 35,600 petitions for spots have already been filed. The number of applications routinely bumps up against the number allowed, leaving employers scrambling for labor sources.
Between the legal hoops all employers have to jump through and the logistics of traveling from track to track around the country, trainers say it is taxing to find and keep competent legal workers.
"It's a certain person who could do this job," Stewart said of working on the backside of a racetrack. "It's not for everybody. The people that like to do it and want to do it ... it's not a lot of people."
Difficult track work goes on rain or shine
Stable work is arduous and dangerous. Grooms have to be at the track before dawn to clean stalls and back at work after the afternoon or evening races to feed and settle horses in their stalls.
Hot walkers, who walk horses around and around the barns after morning workouts to cool them down, have to know how to handle 1,200-pound animals that can kick and bite.
Exercise riders need to be consummate horsemen, able to get on virtually any horse and ride it to order during the chaos of morning workouts when dozens of horses are moving in all directions.
"It's seven days a week; it's rain or shine," Stewart said.
The immigration bill that passed the state Senate would make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to even be in Kentucky. And a crime for anyone to transport, conceal, harbor or encourage illegal immigrants to come to Kentucky.
"Does Kentucky want to be a sanctuary for illegals?" Sen. Tom Jensen, R-London, said last week in arguing for the bill. "What this bill really does is it sends a message ... that we do not tolerate people coming into this country illegally."
The bill's future in the House is uncertain. Meanwhile, state Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, has proposed separate legislation that would require state agencies such as the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to deny a license to or suspend for at least six months trainers who hire an "unauthorized alien."
To horsemen like Stewart, much of the rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate is irrelevant. But trainers also know the result of the debate could have a very concrete impact on the labor supply.
"I can understand everybody needs to be documented. Let's get them in there and document them," he said. "These people are here and ready to pay taxes and do what the U.S. government wants them to do. ... Whatever it takes, they just want to do it to work."
But workers who come to the U.S. illegally and then find work have little recourse; there is no easy way to get on the right side of the law, said Will Velie, an immigration attorney in Oklahoma who works with many horsemen to find legal workers.
Velie warned that trainers could be vulnerable, under new enforcement measures, to arrest and prosecution for harboring illegal aliens, laundering money, or evading taxes if they have workers who don't have up-to-date documents.
"The tracks are low-hanging fruit. They are an easy target for federal agents," Velie said. "Everybody knows there's a lot of illegals on the backside of the track."
Velie, whose Horseman Labor Solutions helps trainers navigate the federal immigration visa process, said his phone started ringing off the hook with "crisis calls" on Jan. 3, after the federal informational meeting with trainers in New Orleans.
He is hoping that a waiver can be negotiated that would allow trainers who aren't using H-2B workers to come forward and get their employees in the program.
Everyone wants to come in out of the shadows, he said.
"The bottom line is it's a hard, dirty job. The problem is, there's no way to get the guys who are here illegally legal in a straightforward, efficient way," he said. "The vehicle for fixing their status is not there and until it's there, it's just going to sit there and fester."
Horsemen have lobbied for federal immigration reform focused less on enforcement and more on practical ways to provide critical labor.
For the horse industry, the immigration debate "is huge," said Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, which lobbies Washington on behalf of all breeds.
"It's been a long time since we've been able to enjoy a steady stream of American workers," Hickey said. Instead, horse farms and trainers have to bring in foreign workers every year through what he termed "a convoluted process" of job postings and visa applications.
"Really what the industry is looking for is two things: a streamlined process to bring in these workers and a way to legitimize workers who are already here who may be undocumented," Hickey said. "That's where you get into the emotional amnesty question."
Headaches in Arizona
With federal legislation bogged down, states have begun stepping in.
Arizona, which passed the immigration law that Kentucky's bill was modeled after, has had its own horse-industry headaches.
"We've got a lot of problems getting workers, that's for sure," said Tom Metzen, president of the Arizona Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association.
Tightened federal restrictions as well as sweeps by state officials have chased people away, he said. Even so, the state said racing regulators haven't been tough enough.
Late last month, a state ombudsman issued a critical report, accusing the Arizona Department of Racing of "selectively enforcing alien status laws and abusing their discretion."
Racing officials continued to license racetrack workers who no longer had valid documentation, according to the report. But a restricted pipeline of legal workers puts increased pressure on trainers who need labor to take who they can get.
"We're trying to get every one of them legal," Metzen said of racetrack workers. "Everybody's just having a problem getting it done."
It's a dilemma that might sound familiar to Kentucky, which last year briefly switched to stricter document standards for licensing backside workers.
Keeneland's spring meet, normally a big draw for top horses from around the country, immediately felt the impact as word spread and out-of-state trainers skipped the meet.
"Several horse racing operations — large and small — that would typically come to Kentucky in the spring elected to race their horses elsewhere," said Rogers Beasley, Keeneland director of racing.
"It is difficult to say definitively whether or not that was a direct result of the Kentucky racing commission's change in its stance regarding licensing," he said. "However, anecdotally, we did receive comments from horsemen who felt that the Kentucky racing commission's policy — until it was amended — was not consistent with other racing jurisdictions."
The incident illustrates how little appetite there can be among regulators for stepping into the immigration fray.
"We'd had a conversation with some people from ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). We were led to believe we had a duty to make sure applicants for licensing were actually legal immigrants," said Lisa Underwood, executive director of the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, which licenses all racetrack workers.
After getting complaints, the commission asked its lawyers to review the policy.
"We looked at what our duty was," Underwood said. "Our only duty is to verify that the person is who they say they are. ... Really, the verification of whether the person is in the country legally or not is the responsibility of ICE."
Reach Janet Patton at (859) 231-3264 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3264