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Immigration Reform Threatens Horse Racing at Its Heart

When I woke up this morning in my quaint room in the town of Ocala, Florida, the first things on my mind were fairly trivial: coffee, first, then my son’s small squeaks and groans telling me he was up as well, the clatter of my dog’s feet as she realized the house was beginning to stir.

Our mornings in this house are not so different than that of many Americans across this country. There is a monotonous routine that is so important for our daily function: brushing teeth, getting dressed, breakfast, discussions of the day’s plans, gatherings of things and packing everyone in the car. The worries that tease the back of my mind are ones I share with so many others — of bills and work, parenting and errands. They’re the issues that we all deal with on any given day.

Somewhere across town, Miguel woke up this morning, too. A native of Mexico, he came to Ocala sixteen years ago, and he shares many of the daily worries that I, and countless other Americans, do. His wife and three daughters are still asleep; his wife has been his partner for 15 years, born in California but spent much of her time in Mexico in her youth. Their oldest is a senior in high school this year, an honor role student who wants to be a nurse, the middle one engrossed in her first year at middle school, and a three year old rounding out the family.

For 15 years Miguel was the lone one in this family without US citizenship.

For 15 years Miguel and his wife woke every single morning with a fear in the pit of their stomachs that I hope I will never be able to comprehend: will today be the last day I spend with my family? Will today be the last day I kiss my girls before I head out to work? Will today be the day my father succumbs to illness in Mexico, and the last conversation I will have had with him is “I can’t come back to see you right now, maybe next time,” knowing that is an empty promise? Will today be the last day I spend on US soil with my wife?

For 15 years these are the things Miguel has had to wrestle with every single day.

Ocala, Marion County is dubbed the “Horse Capital of the World”, and it’s an industry that is built largely on the back of individuals who came to this country looking for work. Thoroughbred farms make up a huge component of the horse industry here, with horses like Silver Charm and Affirmed having connections to Ocala. In any major stakes race across the country the majority of horses have been touched by Ocala – and thus, an immigrant worker. The reality is that immigrant workers do the jobs that, otherwise, cannot be filled. Ask any farm owner, or trainer on the backside, and they will tell you that the best, most dependable workers are those not born in this country, but those that come here looking for work and are willing to work.

Miguel has always had a love of horses; he worked with them in Mexico and then found work in Ocala right away at one of the many Thoroughbred farms that exist here.

“I like to work,” Miguel says, ” I don’t care what you want me to do… I just like to work.”

The work is hard, the days are long, the vacations rare, but it’s work that needs to be done. And for as long as Miguel has worked in this country, he has paid in to it – a portion of his paycheck going to the government just like every other citizen. He works beside countless other men and women who are on a similar path as he is; they came here looking to work and are the backbone of the racing industry in Florida. Some have been here for more years than Miguel, some are DACA children – like Marco, who graduated with his GED as one of the top students in the state – some are still in the middle of the arduous process, countless years and thousands of dollars later.

More so, regardless of their status among us, they are all a part of this community. Their children go to school here, they shop here, they engage in events here, they contribute like the rest of the citizens – and… they pay taxes and into social security they will never see unless they can attain legal status.

Mayor Kent Guinn, Ocala’s mayor, is well aware of the situation in politics right now regarding immigrant workers in America…and now the threat to DACA and the Dreamers in this country. The issue has come to be in the spotlight recently under President Trump, but Mayor Guinn has a realistic view on it –  one he has established by visiting farms in the area to understand the impact. He has traveled to the farms that have produced champions, he has stood on the starting gates as young hopeful colts and fillies explode from within, and he has borrowed pony horses to view it all from their back. Pony horses tacked up by immigrants, people who have held his leg for support as he swung up in the saddle, who have exchanged warm words of appreciation for his position on the matter:

“The equine industry is a $2.6 billion industry in Ocala. These people make the wheels go round, so it would be a huge economic impact on our community if these folks went away… like you can’t even imagine. These people are hard working, nice people, that are paying taxes and having a positive effect on our community. If they weren’t here these farms would cease to exist; [the farm owners] can only muck so many stalls, so I don’t have a problem with them being here. This petition that we just signed addresses some of the issues about bringing them forward and paying some of the money. I just really don’t have a problem.”

The petition that Mayor Guinn references is one that has been spearheaded by the Ocala Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership’s Equine Engagement Commitee and farm owner Jacqui de Meric. The petition asks for Congress to recognize the need and role of foreign workers in Ocala and in Florida. They’re pressing Government bodies to support a legal path that allows immigrants to live and work in this country, as well as a better system in place towards their eventual goal of citizenship.

For people like Miguel, who worked for 11 years for his citizenship, it is a long, expensive, and difficult road.

Last year, when Miguel’s father was very sick, he finally pushed his lawyer one more time – hoping this time he could go to Mexico and then still return home. In a last ditch effort, his lawyers sent him to Mexico with no guarantee of return, hoping it would speed up the process. Miguel left his wife and three girls, unsure if or when he would see them again, knowing in his heart he would only return to this country if he could do so legally.

For 15 years Miguel woke every single day with a pit in his stomach that most of us will never be able to understand or imagine. Would today be the last day he spent on this side of the border?

Although it’s never a thought that has crossed my mind, the reality is that I f Miguel, and all the other immigrant workers, don’t have the support of the government to stay in this country, the trickle down effect is greater than we can comprehend –  and it should leave a pit in all our stomachs.

But this morning, Miguel awoke in his home on US soil with a greencard tucked safely away; eleven years after he started the process he is finally safe in this country. When he leaves the house he knows he will be returning later to his three girls. He will drive himself to work this morning in the car he has owned for years, but never driven, to the same farm he has been at for fifteen years. He will work besides his peers – some here for certain and others still fighting for their right to stay.

This morning, somewhere else in Ocala, Marco will wake up to the reality that the DACA program that has kept him safe his whole youth is now sitting on the bubble. The fear that Miguel is slowly letting go will creep into Marco’s mind, his wife and dreams of a baby evaporating into an anxious haze. This is the only home he remembers as an adult; he has worked with Thoroughbreds for many years, started hundreds of babies and been a partner of the th. He has paid his taxes, he has dreamt of building his life here, but this morning he will awake with a new knot in the pit of his stomach. He will still head out to the farm, there are leggy colts and fillies awaiting his arrival – a day’s work ready to be done, despite this new uncertainty creeping in to every facet of his life.

At the end of the day, when all the foals have been checked, and the weanlings handled, the stalls mucked and the horses turned out to pasture, these are the men and women whose hands bear the callouses of our sport.

When we stand at the finish line, watching the next Triple Crown winner, these are the people who brought these champions from start to finish, who first sat on their backs and last tightened their girths – just as they did with American Pharaoh.

Without them, this sport will cease to exist.


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Article written by Eliya Finkelstein

Chief Storytelling Officer

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