LOUISVILLE — The backside of Churchill Downs is bustling on a muggy morning the week before the Kentucky Derby. Inside Barn Four, run by trainer Dale Romans, a group of women slowly lead sleek thoroughbreds in circles, warming up the horses’ legs before they work out on the track. Several men rake hay in the stalls, stopping every once in a while to chat with each other in Spanish. Some workers spend their shifts bathing, feeding and grooming the horses; others do loads of laundry for trainers and jockeys, shovel manure and sweep the grounds.
Most of these employees on the backside — where thoroughbred horses live during racing season — are immigrants on visas from Mexico and Guatemala. Many have worked for Romans and other local trainers for decades. One man, who asked to go by the name Julio, said he has been in Kentucky for more than 15 years. He said he sends his paycheck — much more than he could make in Guatemala — back home to his children.
“I’ve been working here a long time,” he said as he leaned against the barn and wiped his brow with a bandanna. “It’s a good job, and they pay me every week.”
The country’s $25 billion dollar horse racing industry relies on a majority Hispanic immigrant workforce. Many, like Julio, are in the United States on visas, but others are here illegally, working at racetracks and barns throughout the country. But this year, fear and uncertainty have swept through the industry as the Trump administration has cracked down on illegal immigration, increasing raids and deportations of undocumented immigrants and limiting visa programs.
The policies could have a significant impact on the racing industry, and many employed in it. Without enough visas, horse trainers would face a labor shortage, which could force them to either hire more immigrants illegally or slow down their operations.
“It would be catastrophic, at least at first,” said Romans, who won the 2012 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer. “I don’t know where it would settle. I know that I wouldn’t want to operate without an immigrant workforce.”
Every year, the horse racing industry has to fill thousands of jobs on the backside, like hot walkers — people who walk horses before and after a workout — grooms and exercise trainers. These are jobs that Americans don’t apply for, so trainers must maintain an immigrant workforce using the H-2B visa, which allows employers to bring immigrants to the U.S. to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs. Twice a year, 33,000 visas are allotted nationwide through the program, although most go to industries like landscaping and fishing. According to 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, “non-farm animal caretakers,” which encompasses the horse racing industry, used less than 2 percent of H-2B visas. Out of the first half of visas in the 2017 fiscal year, 548 “non-farm animal caretakers” have been certified.
For years, most immigrants came to the United States for seasonal jobs and returned home to their families until the following year. But that changed last fall. The returning worker exemption, which allowed people to travel home and come back annually, expired in September and has not been renewed by Congress. Now, immigrants have to start the entire application process over again each year, competing with more people for a limited number of visas. During the first week of 2017, 90,000 H-2B applications flooded in; only a third were approved for visas.
Since January, President Trump has expanded the definition of criminals targeted for deportation to include people who have “engaged in fraud or willful misrepresentation in connection with any official matter or application before a governmental agency.” This means any undocumented worker who has signed an employment agreement like H-2B.
Romans said he gets 50 visas every year with the help of his Oklahoma-based immigration attorney Will Velie, who specializes in the equine industry. As part of the H-2B hiring process, before looking for an immigrant workforce employers have to exhaust all possibilities to hire American citizens. As part of the H-2B program requirements, the job must be advertised through federal, state, and local labor departments. Anyone on the unemployment payroll who is interested also gets preference.
Most of the backside jobs require no experience or education, but Velie said hardly anyone ever responds to ads. When they do, they don’t usually get past the initial interview. “Once you tell them the job is outside working with horses, they say ‘no thank you,’ ” he said.
In Romans’s barn, hot walkers and grooms start out just above $10 an hour; other specialty positions like trainers start at $15 or $16. His employees work seven days a week, from 5:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then often come back in the afternoon. These jobs, though low paying and laborious, are the backbone of the racetrack.
“If you don’t have people to take care of horses, there is no need for higher-level professional or frontside jobs, like people working the ticket windows, administrators, concessions, or vets,” Velie said.
If the visa process were easier, Velie added, more trainers would hire workers legally. But the reality is that many operations, in Kentucky and in other states across the country, do not use the H-2B visa program and hire undocumented immigrants illegally. “The enforcement combined with the lack of available visas puts horse trainers in a difficult position,” Velie said. “They either turn away business and shut down or they break the law to avoid going out of business.”
For Romans, the visa process is year-round. “It seems like it’s ongoing,” Romans said. “It never stops. To keep a legal workforce is very difficult.”
The issue has become even more fraught this year. With the president’s anti-illegal immigration rhetoric, many workers at Churchill Downs are afraid to leave the barn when their shifts end. Even people working legally with visas said they are nervous. Dozens of bikes line the walls of the barn, since most employees don’t have driver’s licenses and can’t drive to work. Fearful of getting caught, many only travel where they have to: work, the store and home. It’s an unspoken rule that no one mentions who lacks “their papers.”
Romans said that seeing his employees in this state of constant fear led him to speak up more about the issue. “For me it started as just needing workers and not wanting to work illegal workers, but now it has become more of a human rights thing,” he said. “They’re friends, and I see what they go through, their worries and fears and how poorly they’d live at home.”
For now, the backside of Churchill Downs and other racetracks around the country are some of the only places undocumented immigrants working in the industry can feel at ease. Taking a quick break from cleaning a stall in Romans’s barn, Julio stood up and gestured at his fellow workers. “It is a safe space here,” he said. “Out there, it’s not.”