Monday, March 20, 2006

Coming Soon to a Track Near You: Immigration Reform

Mainstream economic and legal considerations don't seem to apply to Thoroughbred horse racing in this country, I guess because we're just so far off the nation's radar screen. Thus, when two conglomerates gobble up the ownership of nearly every racetrack worth owning, the terms "anti-trust" and "monopoly" never appear in any public discussion. Indeed, with the exception of our own industry publications, no one seems to have noticed that it's happened.

Immigration reform is now being discussed by the popular media in a similar context. There are reports daily about the crisis that might be visited upon tomato and strawberry farmers, landscapers, cement contractors, and a host of other entrepreneurs if some relief isn't granted to the immigrant workers who are estimated to constitute up to 5% of America's current labor force. Racetracks and horse farms? They could merely be devastated by the loss of immigrant labor, but, as usual, who is paying attention?

Of all the employers dependent upon immigrant labor, race horse trainers are by far the most dependent of all. Trainers are responsible 24/7 for live animals, not just livestock on a feedlot , but athletes that require attention to every aspect of their lives. They must be exercised, bathed, walked, fed, watered, freshly bedded, groomed, and picked-up after daily, or multiple times a day. That's every day: Christmas Day, your birthday, and the day after your birthday, when you have that massive hangover. The biggest problem? A shortage of reliable labor, because, well, since this is my blog, I don't have to pussfoot around this one: if sufficient numbers of native born Americans can't be motivated to get up in the morning to pour concrete five or six days a week for reasonable wages, who thinks they would show up seven days a week to care for high-strung horses at $100 a head plus stakes?

Enter (legally and otherwise) the Mexican groom. In a way, he is culturally advantaged, because, unlike our own entitlement-ridden citizens, he comes from a place where there is no great public concern about the quality of your life, or even your survival. If you want to eat, he learns early in life, you work. Unlike most Americans, he has grown up around domestic livestock, often including horses, and understands the fundamental economic value of taking good care of the stock, and the amount of time and attention this requires. The wages for backside work, which would be sniffed at by many natives, are higher than our Mexican groom has ever seen, and represent an unprecedented opportunity to support his family and accumulate material goods. In short, he is knowledgeable and motivated, an ideal prospect. The problem he faces is that he can only be documented for the length of a single race meeting or eleven months, whichever is less, after which he presumably will return to Mexico and repeat an incredibly expensive admission process all over again, or remain in the U.S. and resort to something more, um, creative.

Necessity being a powerful motivator, many trainers have embraced the Mexicans heartily. Outright bigots, who bragged twenty years ago about having nothing to do with the "no-speakies", have discovered a new spirit of brotherly love, and are now operating their outfits exclusively with immigrant help, even dropping an occasional Spanish phrase of their own down the shedrow.

But hold your cavallos. Immigration "reform" is the hottest topic in Washington these days, and somebody's gonna get burned. George Bush has lots of buddies who employ immigrants, and, if for no other reason, he would like to implement a simpler and more realistic method of documenting them. Bush's desire to tackle this issue has ignited spirited public debate that is about to shatter the current "don't ask, don't tell, don't know" environment. If there is no reform now, immigrant laborers, and the employers who need them, may find themselves worse off than before.

Many of Bush's Republican allies on the right wing are pandering to their base on the issue by saying that illegal immigrants shouldn't be rewarded for their lawlessness by being granted any form of forgiveness. These immigration "hawks", personified by Wisconsin Representative James Sensenbrenner, have pretty much adopted a scorched earth legislative agenda, proposing instant felon status for an estimated 11 million workers, along with any who give them material aid, including nurses, teachers and clergy, and $5,000 per day fines for their employers. For everybody else? Ten dollar tomatoes, I suppose. And maybe, a lot less horse racing.

For today, the good news is that Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat Teddy Kennedy have put together a realistic compromise bill that may offer real relief. It's not at all clear that the legislation can be passed, but it's a definite step in the right direction.

I'm sure the American Horse Council and the NTRA are weighing in on this stuff in Washington, but I can't help thinking that our politicians need a little grass roots kick in the pants. We sure can't afford to ignore what's going on, and we can't afford to let them ignore us, either.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the reform means that all peoples living and working in US should:
A. become citizens
B. learn to speak English
C. pay their (and their employers pay their share) then it's a good thing.

3:17 PM  

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