Farm Workers and Immigration Reform

Farm Workers and Immigration Reform

Horse farm workers often spend more time with the animals than anyone else and might be the first to detect subtle problems.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Five years ago, Jill Girardi-Thomas had no problem finding employees to help operate her Franklin, Tenn.-based Arabian horse training and breeding facility. She sought staff who were willing to work hard for a wage that hovered around $10 per hour, and she found that kind of worker was plentiful in the local Hispanic community. All it took to make a hire was a little networking, a few paperwork checks, and provision of a detailed job description. But things have changed, Girardi-Thomas says. And not for the better.

“The labor is just not here,” she explains. “The situation is just horrible.”

Thanks to the lackluster economy, a porous Mexican-American border, and Americans’ call for stricter immigration law enforcement, Girardi-Thomas says many of the Hispanic men and women who maintained stalls and handled horses at private barns and on racetrack backsides have disappeared. The result has been an operational catastrophe for trainers such as herself.

In 2010, when the general economy began to tank and feed and fuel costs skyrocketed, the horse industry took a heavy economic hit. Subsequently, prices of all but the most royally bred horses plummeted, forcing many barn owners to either scale back their operations or shutter them entirely. Those whose businesses did survive had to make do with whatever labor was available, says Carmen Micheletti, who, along with her husband, Tony, operates Paso Largo Farm, in Williston, Fla. The labor force included workers from Mexico less and less frequently, she says.

Subsequently, the U.S.-Mexican border issues and how or if to grant legal alien status figured significantly in the 2012 election cycle. Along with that, a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) crackdown on undocumented alien workers sent many who would have staffed barns and track backsides racing back to Mexico. Equine industry attorney Laurie Volk, JD, MBA, of Berryville, Va., says the crackdown centered mainly on large produce and agriculture farms. But a 2012 sweep by the USCIS at an equestrian event in Florida impacted some undocumented workers at show barns and training facilities. Even so, most barn operators and trainers don’t really expect the government agency to pinpoint their properties. 

“There are penalties, but the (USCIS) pretty much looks the other way when it comes to the horse industry,” Volk says. “That does not mean they don’t have labor issues.” 

The solution for the shortage is for immigration reform legislation to provide a way for undocumented workers to remain in the United States, Volk says. Pending Senate immigration bill S.744—the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013—would create certain pathways to legal status for many of those individuals already working in the equine industry. The legislation would also levy penalty fines against undocumented workers and would create new programs specifically tailored to the equine and agricultural industries’ needs. In turn, barn and farm operators would be required to consult the USCIS’ E-Verify program to ensure their potential hires are either legal permanent U.S. residents or are participants in legislation-provided legal worker programs.

What the Act Says

Barn operators, racetrack backside managers, and their agricultural colleagues in the United States are hoping that passage of the proposed immigration reform bill will eliminate or mitigate their employment woes. Most hope S.744 will sail through Congress, but the measure is only at the beginning of its journey through the U.S. House and Senate. Many months might pass before any sweeping federal immigration reform is actually enacted. 

The bill was introduced into the U.S. Senate in April 2013. By late May members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee had “marked up” the comprehensive immigration reform bill and tethered approximately 300 amendments to the legislation before passing it on to the full Senate.

“There’s no way to know what the final bill will look like,” says Ben Pendergrass, legislative director for the American Horse Council, in Washington, D.C. 

However, several known aspects of the Act are expected to remain intact as the legislation moves through Congress on its way to the President’s desk.

Here are some bill basics:

Legalizing currently undocumented workers Immigrant reform legislation would allow undocumented alien workers who are already employed in the horse industry, but who have either no or false papers, to apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant (RPI) status. Under this status, qualifying workers could remain in the United States, retain their horse industry jobs, and obtain legal status. Qualifying workers must have been in the United States by Dec. 31, 2011; have paid a $500 fine; and be devoid of criminal convictions. The application process would take approximately one year, and if granted RPI status would last six years. Those granted the status could reapply after payment of another $500 fine. These workers could then move toward permanent residence or so-called Green Card status and, eventually, citizenship.

The “Blue Card” program for Agricultural workers Under the Blue Card Program undocumented horse farm workers could become eligible for fast-tracked Green Card status, so long as they remain in the agricultural industry. Farm workers who can prove they’ve worked in the U.S. agricultural industry for at least 100 workdays or 575 hours during the two years prior to Dec. 31, 2012, could be eligible for a Blue Card. Those who fulfill the Blue Card requirements, show they have paid all due taxes, are devoid of criminal conviction, and pay $400 could become eligible for a Green Card within five years. Green Card eligibility is contingent on the worker being able to prove that he or she worked in the agriculture industry for at least 100 days per year of five or more of the past eight years, beginning on the date of the bill’s enactment. Those who worked in the agricultural industry for 150 workdays per year for at least three years during the five-year period beginning from the law’s enactment might also qualify to receive a Green Card in five years. 

Pendergrass says the RPI and Blue Card options encourage undocumented workers already working in the equine industry to stay there, and they allow industry employers to retain their workforces.

“Employers would no longer have to be concerned about fines or other penalties for knowingly or unknowingly employing such workers,” Pendergrass says.

Replacing the H-2A program with Agricultural Worker Program The legislation would create an Agricultural Worker Program to replace the current H-2A program that agricultural employers use to bring in temporary seasonal employees. Under the USDA-administered program, these temporary workers could obtain either portable visas, allowing them to move from one agricultural job to another, or an at-will visa connected to a contract visa program. Both visa types would be valid for three years. 

Under the program, employers would be required to continue providing housing for foreign employees, to pay some transportation costs, and to register with the USDA. Horse breeders would be required to pay a wage determined by the Secretary of Agriculture. 

In all cases, within 10 years of enactment, agricultural employers will be required to consult the E-Verify system to verify a potential worker’s eligibility for employment. 

Finally, S.744 charges the Department of Homeland Security with creating, funding, and initiating a border security plan within six months of the measure’s enactment. At press time (Sept. 4), the act remained pending in the U.S. Senate.

While Legislation is Pending

No one can predict when S.744 might pass both houses of Congress and move on to the President’s desk for signature. Neither Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) nor Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL)—two of the bill’s primary sponsors—was available to discuss the legislation or a potential timeline for its passage. In the meantime, when it comes to staffing their stables, barn operators must follow current law. 

First, they must be willing to offer a prevailing wage. Though much of the work performed by foreign workers could be described as menial, prevailing wages range from $10 to $12 per hour. In some cases the employer might offer appropriate housing in addition to wages.

Next, federal law requires that every employer complete a Form I-9: Employment Eligibility Verification. 

“The I-9 farmworkers’ form tells you what documents you can accept,” says Volk. “Meanwhile, if the (worker) has credentials and they look reasonable, you can accept them.”

On May 7, 2013, the federal government began requiring that employers use only the new I-9 forms, released in March. Details are available by visiting the “I-9” section at the USCIS website: This site also provides information about the E-Verify system, how it works, and who can use it. 

Finally, employers must follow laws concerning income tax responsibilities (more information available at

Many undocumented workers have experience working at horse farms in outside countries.

Laurie Volk

What Can Reform do for You

At the end of the day, Volk believes everyone will benefit from meaningful immigration reform.

“(Undocumented workers) who have experience working with horses will become legal,” she says. “They will become taxpayers, and they will have the opportunity to get better jobs within the equine industry—a chance to move up.”

Meanwhile, barn operators and trainers will have access to the flow of experienced, albeit lower-level, help so long as they are willing to pay a prevailing wage and provide suitable housing when appropriate. 

“The USCIS considers anyone with less than a bachelor’s degree to be unskilled, but these are not $4-an-hour jobs,” Volk says. “Many undocumented workers have experience from working at horse farms in outside (countries).”

But some oppose comprehensive immigration reform on grounds that should they earn legal status, some foreign workers will rob legal U.S. citizens of employment opportunities. It’s something C. Reid McLellan, PhD, executive director of the Groom Elite Horseman’s Education Program, hears frequently. Based in Lexington, Ky., the program is a nonprofit horsemen’s service that trains prospective barn and racetrack backside workers to handle horses safely and help maintain the animals’ overall day-to-day health and fitness. 

“Very often, it’s the groom who notices that a horse coughs when he drinks water or that he suddenly has come up with a slight limp,” McLellan says. “Even owners will say that the grooms spend more time with the horses than anyone else.”

Horsemen’s associations and professional racing organizations generally pay participating students’ education fees. Most students or graduates are seeking their first career move.

Volk believes that if and when comprehensive immigration reform does become law, some barn operators and trainers will also pay fines and help collect paperwork for experienced longtime employees. Others interested in obtaining legal status will do so and move into the general workforce. But Volk does not see immigrant reform legislation as the sole solution to the illegal immigration issue.

“I don’t think undocumented people in this country are going to disappear,” Volk said. 

Even so, Girardi-Thomas believes some kind of reform is crucial to the survival of her operation and those of many others weathering challenging economic times. Until legislation passes, the cost of horse ownership and other agricultural services and products will only continue to climb. 

“If we don’t have the labor, we have to work what staff we have overtime, and that cost is passed on to the clients,” Girardi-Thomas says. “We’re all part of the same (industry), and something’s got to give here.”

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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