LOUSILLE, Ky, May 1, (AP): The backside of Churchill Downs hums with activity as workers clean stalls, bathe horses and lead the muscular animals on strolls to cool them down after workouts. The quiet is broken when they speak to each other and the horses — in Spanish.
Though they do their work a world away from the grandstand and Millionaire’s Row, where fans will sip mint juleps, don fancy hats and cheer for their Kentucky Derby favorites on the first Saturday in May, immigrants have become indispensable at Churchill Downs and other tracks, people in the industry say. Now, fear is spreading that a Trump administration crackdown on immigration will be a calamity both for the tracks and for many of their workers. While there’s widespread acknowledgement that some jobs go to undocumented workers, many trainers rely on the H-2B visa program to supply immigrant workers legally, and the tightening of that program has contributed to a worker shortage.
Some argue that the presence of foreign workers has a downward drag on everybody else’s income. But Dale Romans, the second-winningest trainer in Churchill’s history, says he can’t find American workers to do the jobs. “This is definitely a business that survives on an immigrant workforce,” Romans said. “Without it, I don’t know what we would do.” The apprehension on the backside has been stoked by the election of Donald Trump, who staked out a role as an immigration hard-liner during the campaign and referred to some Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers. “I wouldn’t say it’s an extreme fear, but there is nervousness” among Churchill’s immigrant workers, track chaplain Joseph del Rosario said.
“There’s fear they’re going to get kicked out just because they’re not citizens.” Said one 53-year-old backside hand who has worked at racetracks across the country: “I’m scared. Because one day, I don’t know, they catch me and send me to Mexico.” The man, who agreed to an interview only on the condition his name not be used because he fears being exposed to immigration authorities, said his visa expired a couple of years ago but he has kept working, moving up the ranks in the barns where he works. His family has made a life in the United States; if he had to return to Mexico, he said, he’d probably toil in the avocado fields. Even workers here legally on visas worry about the threat of immigration crackdowns.