Tom Eblen

Will Trump’s immigration policies cause labor shortage in Kentucky’s horse racing industry?

Failure to renew a visa exemption for guest workers could cause a labor crunch among grooms, exercise riders and hot walkers who staff the backside of Thoroughbred racetracks such as Keeneland.
Failure to renew a visa exemption for guest workers could cause a labor crunch among grooms, exercise riders and hot walkers who staff the backside of Thoroughbred racetracks such as Keeneland. Herald-Leader File Photo

What will Donald Trump’s presidency mean for Thoroughbred racing? After all, Kentucky’s horse industry could never get out of the starting gate without the immigrants he demagogued as “criminals” and “rapists” during the campaign.

Will Trump and Republicans in Congress crack down on both legal and illegal immigration as he promised? Or will the billionaire capitalist find ways to protect business interests that have come to depend on immigrants and seasonal “guest workers” to fill low-wage jobs they say few Americans are willing to take?

The first test came this week in the U.S. House of Representatives, and it sent a shudder through the Thoroughbred industry.

A House bill to keep the government funded through April failed to renew a visa exemption in the H2B program that allowed recent visa holders to return for seasonal work with racing stables and trainers.

Without that exemption, there could be a serious shortage of exercise riders, hot walkers and grooms. That’s because the law caps H2B visas at 66,000 a year for non-agriculture industries. (Horse farms get guest workers under the less-restrictive H2A program.)

“This is very disappointing, but not surprising given the current environment in Washington,” Alex Waldrop, president of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, in a statement.

The racing industry is lobbying Congress to restore that exemption through other legislation.

“Our congressional delegation is generally quite helpful on issues important to our industry,” said Chauncey Morris, executive director of the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association. “We’re hopeful that the incoming administration and our legislators look at the needs of business.”

But that may be more difficult than in the past.

For one thing, the visa exemption has been attacked by Breitbart.com, a controversial right-wing website whose top executive, Stephen Bannon, guided Trump’s campaign and was appointed one of the president-elect’s top advisers.

Breitbart.com this week applauded Congress’ failure to pay the visa exemption “to annually outsource another 198,000 blue-collar jobs to low-paid foreign workers.” The website has repeatedly attacked the exemption, calling it House Speaker Paul Ryan’s “pink-slip plan.”

Another issue is whether the Trump administration will make good on his promise to expand the costly E-Verify program to make sure immigrant workers have proper documentation. Currently, many employers simply must review workers’ own documents and make a judgment on whether they look authentic.

E-Verify could greatly increase the cost of doing business for many employers — and cut back on the labor pool by weeding out undocumented workers who now slip through the system.

Many immigrants from Central and South America come here with both strong work ethics and the skills to handle high-strung race horses. The jobs they fill are demanding — and can be dangerous.

Morris said Kentucky’s Thoroughbred industry has been trying in recent years to reduce its dependence on immigrant labor by training more local workers — and offering higher wages.

But it hasn’t been easy. “There is, frankly, a labor shortage for jobs like that,” he said.

Andres Cruz, editor and publisher of La Voz, a Lexington newspaper that covers Central Kentucky’s Latino community, thinks he knows one reason for that labor shortage: Although the anti-immigrant rhetoric from politicians has increased, immigration has been steadily falling for nearly a decade.

With Trump in power, Cruz said, “I think we’ll see less and less people willing to come to the U.S. to work. There is not a lot of motivation to come. We’ll see a shortage of labor in Kentucky.”

Thoroughbred racing officials — like leaders in virtually every industry that employs large numbers of immigrants — say what they really want is “comprehensive immigration reform” to fix a broken system that isn’t serving anyone well.

But the big question is what “reform” might look like in the Trump era. Would it favor the populists or the capitalists? Is a compromise even possible, since the Republican Party is now an uneasy coalition of both factions?

This could be an interesting year for Thoroughbred racing in Kentucky, never mind the horses.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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