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At Churchill Downs, Immigration Crackdown Causes Unease on the Backstretch

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/25/2017 Rebecca Davis O’Brien
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LOUISVILLE -- For 17 years, Cesar has risen at 4 a.m. to work in a barn behind the Churchill Downs racetrack, tending to the prize thoroughbreds assigned to him: icing and wrapping their legs, washing them down after practice runs, raking their stalls.

Like scores of other so-called backstretch workers preparing for next month’s Kentucky Derby, Cesar—one of his given names—is in the U.S. illegally. He lives on the racetrack grounds but is increasingly unwilling to set foot outside the gates, afraid he will be arrested and sent back to Guatemala.

“Because of Trump,” Cesar said. “I have a car, I bought it for $3,000, but I don’t want to drive it.”

Kentucky is Trump country, with more than 62% of voters in the state siding with the Republican candidate. His message of toughened immigration enforcement, for both security and economic reasons, resonated here.

But Kentucky is also horse country, and many in the state’s most glamorous business say the president’s immigration crackdown is causing a pinch. Trainers say they depend on a steady supply of foreign labor, primarily from Latin America and Mexico, to do jobs Americans won’t.

© William DeShazer for The Wall Street Journal

At Churchill Downs, backstretch workers are part of an ecosystem that for decades has operated on a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. No one at the track could recall a raid or any other enforcement action related to immigration on the grounds themselves, but all agreed the threat is increasingly acute as they prepare for the sport’s marquee race.

Trainers say they would prefer to hire legally, but faced with a deficit of American applicants or legal visa-holders, they have no choice but to accept people willing to work jobs that require long hours and pay between $10 and $15 an hour.

“We’d be out of business if we didn’t have them,” one trainer said.

At racetracks around the country, many of the grooms, exercise riders and stablehands have green cards or full citizenship, but a greater number are in the country illegally, according to immigration lawyers and trainers. Other workers come and go each year on temporary visas, which some trainers say they depend on for a legal, steady workforce.

“We’ve made it so difficult for us to get a labor force that’s necessary,” said Dale Romans, one of racing’s most successful trainers, with almost $100 million in winnings over a 30-year career. One of his horses, J Boys Echo, is slated to run in the Derby on May 6.

“If they start rounding up people, they are going to realize how important” the immigrant workforce is to the industry, Romans said.

A number of his workers left the country in mid-April when their visas expired. “We’re really rolling the dice that we get them back,” Romans said.

Meanwhile, some say immigration enforcement has toughened, even against people who don’t have criminal backgrounds. Will Velie, an immigration lawyer in Norman, Okla. who has many trainers as clients, said more workers are being stopped by police for traffic violations and other suspected offenses, then detained and deported if they lacked proper paperwork. “No small offense is going unpunished,” Velie said.

Twice a year, the Department of Labor issues 33,000 H-2B visas to employers for seasonal “unskilled” workers, in industries from landscaping to seafood preparation. (President Trump’s businesses have used H-2B visas: earlier this year, the Trump National Golf Club outside New York City filed paperwork seeking eight H-2B visas for food services this summer, paying $14.08 an hour.)

In 2015, 1,513 positions for “nonfarm animal caretakers,” which include backstretch workers, were certified nationally by the Department of Labor.

Until last fall, returning workers who had already received H-2Bs didn’t count against the annual 66,000 cap and had more flexible start dates. That exemption expired on Sept. 30 and hasn’t been extended, leaving trainers rushing to file their applications for their spring and summer workforce to avoid getting shut out of the contracting supply of visas.

“The reality of our visa system is that it is woefully insufficient to meet the needs of companies,” said Jeremy Robbins, executive director of the New American Economy, an advocacy group that promotes the role of immigrants in the American workforce.

While many in the racing industry describe the H-2B program as cumbersome and expensive, they are still pushing to have the exemption reinstated, arguing that the program supports tens of thousands of other jobs. “All of those jobs are in danger, if you don’t have somebody to take care of the horses,” said Ben Pendergrass, senior vice president of policy and legislative affairs at the American Horse Council, a lobbying group.

“Without the H-2B visa program, I’m shutting down my business,” said Niall Brennan, a horse trainer in Ocala, Fla. whose stables helped train 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist. Brennan applied for and was granted 35 visas to last through the end of the summer, but he’s not sure what will happen in the fall once that group leaves.

Like Romans, Brennan said he would like to see a pathway to citizenship for his workers, many of whom have returned year after year. “They are great employees,” Brennan said. “They pay taxes, they are vital to the local economy.”

One foreman at Churchill Downs came to the U.S. from Mexico 18 years ago on an H-2B visa. Eight years ago, he said, he applied for residency—he said he was approved, but never received his papers. He has been without a visa for five years, and hopes that his U.S.-born children will one day be able to sponsor him for legal residency.

“The visa is very important, to live without fear of anything,” said the foreman. He said workers won’t leave, as visas often require, without a guarantee that they can return. “Nobody knows if it will be more difficult.”

Cesar has returned to Guatemala just once in 17 years, and stays in touch with his children over the phone.

On his afternoon shifts, Cesar keeps his phone at his side, softly playing Guatemalan news and sports radio. At Churchill Downs, some people are “in flight from the police,” Cesar said. At home in Guatemala, it’s the gangs. “I tell my sons, ‘Don’t go into them, because you will never come out.’”

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