Just ahead of the summer racing season, there’s a noticeable change in the fabric of this otherwise quiet, picturesque Upstate New York town.
The predominantly white community of approximately 28,000 residents becomes the temporary home of migrant workers — drawn by the same industry that attracts hundreds of thousands of summer tourists: the historic Saratoga Race Course. In turn, bustling local restaurants find they need to boost their staffs, and some of them hire immigrant workers, too.
It’s worked that way for years.
But since Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents started beefing up their presence in Saratoga Springs, Mayor Joanne Yepsen said, it almost seems as if those workers — even if here on a legal work visa — are afraid to walk the downtown streets. It became clear that some had fled town, she said, stopped showing up for work or simply never arrived for the busiest work season of the year.
In just a few weeks earlier this year, ICE agents arrested more than two dozen undocumented immigrants, mostly Mexican restaurant workers who had lived in the town year-round.
“In a small town, that makes a big difference,” Yepsen said of the immigration arrests. “They were here taking jobs that the restaurants were having a hard time filling with anybody else and still are having a hard time filling.”
Some restaurants quickly had to cut back their hours and reorganize their kitchen staffs. One business, in nearby Hudson Falls, closed up shop.
“It’s creating chaos for restaurant owners,” said Patrick Pipino, owner of a local Ben & Jerry’s. Pipino does not employ any migrant workers, but he recently spoke on behalf of Saratoga Springs’ business community for a panel organized by the city’s human rights task force after the arrests.
“One of the worst-kept secrets in Saratoga is that there’s definitely a presence of migrant workers, whether they’re documented or undocumented,” he said. “People are definitely shaken. There’s an element of fear.”
Those anxieties have since trickled down to the backstretch of the Saratoga Race Course, the space most populated by migrant workers in town. Even those who are legally in the country on a seasonal work visa — mostly from Central and South America — feel pressured to hide since the ICE arrests, said Marcia Pappas, who runs a volunteer organization to provide resources for immigrant workers at the racetrack.
Yepsen said that urge to hide is the result of unreasonable fear stoked by the Trump administration. The administration has pledged it will cut back on legal immigration and give preference to high-skilled, English-speaking workers — which would directly hit hopeful workers at the track and at local restaurants — while aggressively detaining and removing undocumented immigrants.
When out-of-state horse trainers and their animals settle into the town’s storied Saratoga Race Course stables around April, the hundreds of migrant workers come, too, Pappas said. Now, some are taking extra precautions to not be seen outdoors or leave the workplace. She recalled one instance recently where an immigrant’s U.S.-born child panicked over being deported after discovering their passport was expired.
“The morale has certainly been affected,” Pappas said. “I’ve spoken directly to people who won’t leave the track, because they think ICE is circling the track.”
ICE agents arrested 16 people on May 30. Two weeks later, on June 14, agents arrested 11 undocumented immigrants, ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said. Most were of Mexican and Guatemalan descent. None was deemed to be a threat to the community, and all were arrested on civil violations.
Though ICE primarily focuses on “individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” Walls said, “all those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.” Many of those arrested were detained for illegally reentering the country after prior deportations, though at least one had forged green-card documents, according to ICE.
Since the arrests, the city’s human rights task force has stepped up its efforts to assist immigrants. The local Presbyterian New England Congregational Church announced it would provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants facing deportation, said Terry Diggory, the coordinator for the church’s Welcoming Immigrants Task Force.
Immigrants on the backstretch of the racetrack tend to the trainers’ horses and their stalls for several hours by day and sleep a few steps away by night. That workforce is typically selected and hired by individual trainers and their teams. According to the New York Racing Association (NYRA), which does not employ the workers but operates the track, approximately 1,100 workers live on the backstretch.
One undocumented backstretch worker, who asked not to be identified, for fear of retribution, said that although none of their workers was directly affected by the ICE arrests, they have been shaken by agents’ presence. Some of the workers are undocumented, while others fear that their seasonal visas are at stake.
“A year ago, we didn’t hear anything. Nobody worried about anything,” said the worker, who has been coming to the racetrack for more than a decade. “When we came to Saratoga in May, the situation was so different. The rumors were true, and people were asking questions.”
Many of those backstretch workers rely on the seasonal H-2B visa applications the horse trainers can file each year with the Labor Department, filling the grueling jobs trainers say would otherwise go unstaffed.
Maggie Sweet, chief operating officer for Todd Pletcher Racing Stables, filed an application for H-2B worker visas to employ approximately 50 horse grooms from April until November. She said her team has had “major, major, major trouble” with hiring non-immigrant workers, adding that “American workers don’t want to do the jobs.”
Sweet said the occupation involves working nearly every day of the week from 4 to 10:30 a.m., with workers often starting a second afternoon shift at 3:30 p.m.
“If the H-2B visa went away, we’d be severely impacted,” she said. “It’s more than half of our workforce.”
Chris Kay, the president and chief executive of the NYRA, which operates the Saratoga Race Course, said in July that the association has offered trainers assistance in ensuring their employees’ legal immigration status.
However, Kay emphasized to local business leaders and reporters that he is not able to keep ICE agents from knocking on the racetrack’s doors, according to the Albany Times Union.
Jena Antonucci, owner of Bella Inizio Farm in Ocala, Fla., and a thoroughbred trainer at the track, said that ICE’s presence at Saratoga Race Course is nothing new and that it should not be considered a partisan issue. She employs horse grooms and hot-walkers on H-2B visas and said the burden is on business owners — those at the racetrack and otherwise — to make sure their workers are in the United States legally.
“They’re family, and I take great pride in knowing they’re doing it the right way,” Antonucci said of her employees. “People who aren’t here the right way should be concerned, but I don’t think that matters, whether its 2017 or 2010.”
For those who stay in the community for restaurant work or year-round field-hand jobs, the worker said, life in Saratoga Springs can be a bit more anxiety-ridden — they have built their families there.
One undocumented woman, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, has received help from the Saratoga County Economic Opportunity Council since the arrests. She moved there less than a year ago and is expecting a baby. She previously worked in a nearby restaurant, and one of her family members was “grabbed” by ICE agents, she said. Now she needs help arranging for drivers to pick her up and take her to doctor’s appointments so she does not have to be seen outside.
“It’s very stressful to think my baby’s father could be grabbed,” she said in Spanish. “We come here and we’re willing to work extremely hard because of what we’ve suffered in Mexico.”
As for the rest of the racing season and whether fears of deportation or arrest will be alleviated, advocates say people will have to wait and see. The undocumented woman and her boyfriend are now seeking asylum.
The backstretch workers typically head back to their home countries in November, or leave the state with their trainers. Byron Cortez, who also provides assistance to backstretch workers and other immigrants in the Saratoga Springs community, said people are now afraid to do basic activities such as grocery shopping or going to a doctor’s appointment.
Cortez, who is from Ecuador, was undocumented for two years. His father was deported nearly 10 years ago but will be able to legally return to the United States in January. His personal experience has only intensified his belief that people should not have to live in the shadows in Saratoga Springs, separated from their families.
“It’s amazing what they have to go through,” Cortez said. “It’s incredible.”