Immigration Bill Brings Call for Political Action

Horsemen have indicated they plan to step up efforts to educate legislators about their concerns regarding immigration policy in the United States given the horseracing industry’s heavy reliance on foreign workers, particularly those of Hispanic origin.

The issue was addressed at a Feb. 8 workshop during the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association winter convention in Hot Springs, Ark. The meeting was titled “Immigration Reform Under a New Congress and How It Will Impact Horsemen.”

Legislation currently in the Senate has 17 sponsors, 10 of which are Democrats, said Peggy Hendershot, vice president of legislation and corporate planning for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. The shift in power to Democrats in Congress could facilitate passage of the bill, she said.

“This was part of the Democrat’s agenda when they came into power (in the 2006 November election),” Hendershot said. “It’s pretty much a Democrat-driven issue, so it probably has little better shot.”

What that means for the horse industry remains to be seen. Workshop participants said the U.S. Department of Labor may not have an understanding of how the industry operates and what it needs in terms of its workforce.

“We need to start educating ourselves and the public,” said Mary Ann O’Connell, executive director of the Washington HBPA.

Hendershot suggested horsemen become active in Horse PAC, an NTRA initiative that has raised about $1.5 million for political action. Horse PAC doled out about $350,000 last year, and will give out a similar amount in 2007 even though it’s not an election year.

“It’s all about relationships and money,” Hendershot said. “We’ve enlisted horsemen from time to time when we’ve had to move legislation along. We would welcome your participation in Horse PAC.”

As with any issue, lawmakers want to see a “united front,” Hendershot said. It would be helpful, she said, to get legislators in racing states to contact the Department of Labor with the industry's concerns, but they first must be educated.

“You need to give (legislators) the proper tools,” Hendershot said. “You need to get with other (industries) with the same problems. We’re not the only people frustrated by the (immigration) process.”

The H2B visa program (for non-agricultural workers) enacted in 1984 was used successfully through last year, said Luis Galvadon, an immigration specialist who works with some horsemen’s groups. The issue, he said, is complicated, in part because the H2A visa program (agricultural) used by farm workers doesn’t apply to those in racetrack stable areas.

A proposal on Capitol Hill would grant those with H2A visas temporary legal status in the U.S.

“We do need to legalize our workforce in the United States,” Galvadon said. “We do think an immediate solution is to refine the H2B visa program.”

Matt Martinez, and immigration attorney, said it’s important for horsemen to understand they--not HBPA affiliates--are considered the employer and therefore must submit the paperwork. He also said Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has added criminal sanctions for immigration-law violators.

Understanding procedures and the law is a major obstacle, said Frank McDonald, president of the Washington HBPA. He said the problem stems from the traditional nature of the horse business.

“I know horses, I don’t know paperwork--that attitude is dominant in this sport,” he said. “If there were a simplification of the application process (for visas), maybe things would get a whole lot better. This is a new era. We’re all going to have to pull together to make this work or we’re all going to see the end of horse racing.”

Galvadon said it’s up to HBPA affiliates, other horsemen’s associations, and the industry at large to lobby for a workable immigrant-worker system.

“You can really help the process by being a squeaky wheel,” Galvadon said. “When you have the whole racing industry complaining to the Department of Justice, they have to listen to you. The economy will be hurt as a whole by not allowing these people to come to this country to work.”

HBPA officials said they plan to work with the NTRA and American Horse Council to devise a strategy on the immigration issue. Dr. Enrique Torres, executive director of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America, offered his organization’s assistance in the effort and suggested the industry prepare a bilingual brochure with a simple explanation of immigration law and the visa application process.