Level Playing Field (2021) s01e03 Episode Script

Down the Backstretch

The following is a presentation
of HBO Sports.
They're off.
Swinging over from the outside
to take the lead.
maintaining a length lead.
Felix pulling away.
It's anybody's race with 200 yards to
come. Cavalcade has his head in front.
It's like a drug.
Once you've experienced it,
it never goes away.
When my horse is coming down
the stretch, it's just, "Please win."
Cavalcade is home
by two and a half lengths.
The front side is the racetrack.
The front side is the fans, the hats.
It's everything that fans see.
All those barns that you see
when they go around the turn
in the Kentucky Derby,
that's the backside.
That's where the work is done.
You might have a fancy trainer
that you see on TV
that looks like the face of it.
But really the groom,
he sleeps in its stall when it's sick.
That person is so integral
to the success of the horse.
They're the people behind the scenes
that make everything work.
Americans in the horse industry,
they have very high positions.
You will be the trainer
or the assistant trainer.
The jobs that are held by Latino
immigrants will be your hot walkers,
groom, from time to time,
a foreman.
There are three or four
major American industries
that would not exist the way
they do, but for immigrant labor.
Build that wall. Build that wall.
But, it's one of the thorniest
issues in American politics.
When Mexico sends its people,
they're not sending their best.
They're bringing drugs.
They're bringing crime.
When we talk about immigration,
we're talking about a set of laws,
but we're also talking
about people.
Why are we allowing
immigration policy
that does not reward our hardest
workers? Why are we okay with that?
You can't move forward
without these workers.
You really need them
to keep the business running.
If you don't have them,
then you won't have the sport.
This is my father right here
with a big chain.
My dad apparently was one of
the best horse groomers in New York.
They actually used to compete
on which horse looked the best
when they were taking them out
to horse races.
And my dad was always the winner.
My father came from Mexico. He entered
as an illegal alien at the age of 15.
He started just sweeping around
the barns, and moved his way up.
When my mother arrived,
she was pregnant with me,
she also arrived
as an illegal alien.
She was actually feeding all the guys
that worked in the horse industry,
because a lot of the men are here
while their wives are in Mexico.
So she was their cook.
We actually lived
in the backstretch of the track
in a little room inside the barn.
Other families lived there as well.
My mom would set up little blankets,
so we could sleep on the floor,
since we had to move
from track to track.
There were times where they used to
kick us out when securities found us.
So my dad used to just rent
little motels and leave us there.
You're working
with very dangerous animals.
We had a lot of incidents. My mom
was cleaning the horse's feet.
It hit her, and she ended up
in the hospital.
There was another time,
this horse got really crazy,
and my dad also ended up
in the hospital.
So, it's dangerous.
They can hurt you, but we love it.
This is when my father
had his horses.
I was his hot walker
at age 15.
This is me walking El Futuro.
So he named the horse El Futuro,
because he said
horses were his future.
The thoroughbred is the finest
race horse in the world.
And its purpose in life
is to win races,
bring honor to its owner
and make lots of money.
The thoroughbred is really a creation
of the era of modern globalization.
Towards the end of the 1600s,
and the beginning of the 1700s,
stallions are shipped
from the present day Middle East,
and they're brought
to Great Britain,
and they're crossed with mares
that are already there.
And you have a formation of the breed
that we call the thoroughbred horse.
Racing really becomes something
that they're clearly good at.
And in the United States,
by the 19th century,
you're starting to have
a national racing culture,
Sheepshead Bay, Churchill Downs,
which is founded in 1875.
And then, Chicago really
comes on the scene in the 1880s.
It takes an incredible amount
of specialized labor
to take care of any horse.
And it takes an even more incredible
amount of even more specialized labor
to get a thoroughbred athlete
ready to compete.
The people who are doing basic medical
care, shoeing, grooming, and feeding,
and then riding, and training,
in the North,
It tends to be mostly
Irish immigrants
and working-class white kids
who have these jobs.
But the vast majority in the South
are going to be African-Americans.
Black people remain on the backstretch
throughout the 20th century.
For instance, the men who both
exercised and groomed Secretariat
were African-American.
So even though the numbers
have declined,
have never left racing.
Every afternoon, somewhere
in the United States is repeated
the age old ritual
of horse racing.
Racing became
such a popular sport.
Even until the middle part
of the 20th century,
it was still a major part
of newspaper coverage of sports.
Old Churchill Downs
is jammed with racing fans
for the 79th running
of the Kentucky Derby.
And they're off.
It's a good start on the fast track.
The horses battle for a position
in this classic mile and a quarter
run for the roses.
Horse care
is specialized knowledge.
Even heavily involved owners
are depending on the expertise
of the people
in the backstretch.
Working with horses,
period, is hard. It is dangerous.
There is no time you clock off.
It's certainly been the labor
of enslaved people,
but it's also been
immigrant work.
In a weird way,
it's actually quite logical
that given our geopolitical
relationship to Latin America,
that those folks would end up with
a lot of jobs on the backstretch.
The backstretch
is just all the employees
that keep these horses alive,
that keep this business running.
You start as a hot walker.
The person that walks the horse
after coming back from the track,
that is very important, because
we have to cool the horse down,
usually 30 to 45 minutes,
or else the horse, they either get
cramps, or they get a little hyper.
Depending on how well you do,
you will move up to a groom.
After that, the exercise riders,
they take the horses to the tracks,
so they can do
their exercise.
Then you have foreman,
assistant trainer.
And eventually, if you want
to go on your own,
you get your license
to be a trainer.
And then there's always the owner.
That's the money maker.
My job here is to ride horses.
I learned in Mexico to ride horses.
My grandfather teach me how to ride
since I was three years old.
I came here in 2006.
I decided to come,
because I love horses,
and I had the opportunity to get
an H-2B visa, and come here to ride.
So I love to come every morning.
When I lived in Mexico,
I never touched horses, you know?
Then when I came to the USA, my
brother was working with the horses.
He said, "It's easy," but I watched,
and I said, "It's not easy."
You have to work,
and do it, do it, do it.
Now, I'm good.
I come in early, 4:30,
and we start opening up.
When we come to the track
we just walk for 10 minutes,
then take them to the other side
to get rest.
We go to the stall,
and catch the next one.
Just turning, turning, turning.
What we're doing is
we're watching the horses train.
So, I watch their ears.
I see if they're up like that.
It shows they're happy,
enjoying what they're doing.
I watch the length of the stride,
how much they're cooperating
with the riders,
all those things you get used to
every day.
So if there's a little something
different, you kind of pick up on it.
They all have a role,
the grooms to the riders.
When they pull up, the riders,
I'll always ask them
if there's something that they feel
a little different, or don't like.
They tell me immediately,
and then we know to start looking,
in case there's a sore muscle
somewhere or something.
It's a team.
Everybody has their part.
They come from all over. Some
are illegal, been here, born here.
Others get visas.
We have some from Guatemala.
We have some from Mexico.
We've had some from Peru here.
These guys have a lot of pride
in what they do.
They're enjoying the freedoms
that we have over here,
the income
that they can have,
which they send most of it
right back to their families.
My name is Elizabeth Buckley.
I am an immigration lawyer
based out of Lexington, Kentucky.
I bring in people
that work with horses.
The reality of the situation right
now in the thoroughbred industry is
that if you hire an American worker,
the normal turnaround time,
maximum of four days.
Everybody that comes
works for a little bit and quits.
Americans would like to find jobs
that are a little safer,
and less rigorous,
and less difficult.
If you're kind of from Mexico
or a Central American country,
then you're going to have
that work ethic,
because it's so competitive
for jobs and money there
that when you get up here,
you work hard.
I'm going through, and I'm shutting
the back doors only, okay?
To be successful, you just have
to endure. This is 365 days.
There's no days off.
I graduated from college in 1994,
and went straight into horses.
I did the same work
as a Latino would do.
The relationship was good.
Other than language barriers,
and having to learn bits and pieces
to communicate,
they're very good at it.
It's not that they can just do
the labor part of it.
They're really good with the horses.
They do excellent work.
The sport without immigrant labor,
will definitely not work.
You really need these workers
to keep your business running.
But the horse industry and
immigration are both very difficult.
We're competing for a ridiculously
low number of visas.
In 17 years, it is the most
competitive it has ever been.
The entire system is completely
in need of an overhaul.
Immigration is one of the thorniest
issues that the Congress deals with.
And the challenge
over the years
has been trying to get
the Rubik's Cube right,
and that can be very tough.
We agree that we have to begin
with enforcement of the law,
and that there has to be
a workable,
and enforceable temporary
worker component to it.
We need to work together
to come up
with a practical solution
to this problem.
We got one more chance to do this.
If we fail this time around,
no politician is going
to take this up in a generation.
The system is not fair.
It's not fair to workers.
It's not fair to businesses
who are trying to do the right thing.
We have not had
what lawmakers like to call
comprehensive immigration reform
since 1990.
So, it's been 30 years that the
systems have just remained in place.
Whenever you're talking
about comprehensive reform,
you're talking about dealing
with a lot of different components.
Enforcement of the existing laws,
legalization of the undocumented
immigrant population,
and legal immigration, including
the guest worker programs.
There's so many moving parts
that it becomes easy for people
to drop off in terms of supporting it.
On this vote, the yeas are 193,
and the nays are 231.
The bill is not passed.
Because the system itself
hasn't been addressed
from a larger perspective in so long,
changes are made in small increments.
That type of change can accumulate
to a more complicated system.
Our immigration system is kind
of set up into three main buckets.
You have family-based immigration,
which is people coming
from outside the US,
because they have familial ties.
And then you have humanitarian visas
in a second bucket,
which are more like your asylum
and refugee programs.
And then the third bucket is
employment-based immigration.
And that is further split
into your employment-based visas
for lawful permanent
resident status.
And then, you have
these temporary work visa programs,
which are where guest
workers come in.
For lower skilled workers,
it's really only
the H-2A and H-2B programs
for temporary or seasonal jobs.
There are jobs where there's a spike
in demand for a certain product,
or there's a seasonal nature
to the production of the product.
These programs, by design,
have no longterm path to citizenship.
The H-2B program is meant for
seasonal guests workers.
It's popular in industries like
forestry, hospitality,
seafood processing.
And a small portion of those workers
work in horseracing.
A backstretch worker, if they come
under a guest worker program,
they're going to be here
for 10 months.
Normally, a horse trainer, they're
going to have a busy racing season.
So, during that busy season,
we need to bring in
temporary supplemental grooms.
We don't need them
12 months out of the year.
We need them
when we're really busy.
Throughout our nation's history,
there folks who have come here
as guest workers
that have contributed
to our nation's economy,
who have given
so much of themselves
to make this economy
make this place what it is.
The first guest worker program in US
history started during World War I,
when so many men were drafted
into the military,
that US farms needed
farm workers.
And they were imported from Mexico
to serve contracts on US farms.
The goal was to fill that labor
shortage, and that's the only goal.
That went away
during the Great Depression,
but it resurged again,
during World War II
in the form of the Bracero
guest worker program.
With a domestic supply
of farm labor being inadequate,
braceros in Spanish, this means
a man who works with his arms,
are a must.
The Bracero Program
goes from 1942 to '64.
During its lifespan,
brings in 4.5 million workers.
Farmers would recruit in Mexico,
load up a crew on a bus,
and bring them over the border
to the farm.
They would house them onsite.
They would stay at the farm
throughout the term of their contract.
And then, they would go home
at the end of the season.
There were concrete benefits
for some workers.
They were able
to support their families.
They were able to send children
to school.
They were able to see
a modicum of board mobility.
But the reality was that they also
endured high levels of exploitation.
The bracero has nobody
to represent him.
If he opens his mouth to complain,
he is sent right back to Mexico.
The Bracero Program comes
to an end in 1964
through congressional hearings,
where it is made evident that their
human rights are being violated,
and Congress shuts it down.
I don't think we've learned
the lessons from the Bracero Program.
That relationship of power,
where employers hold
so much power over employees
is something that these guest
worker programs inherently built.
Guest workers will leave
their families, come here,
and dedicate months of their lives
doing these difficult tasks,
and return to their countries
back and forth, back and forth,
never having full entry
into American society.
That, to me,
is the saddest part of all of this.
When my father first arrived,
everyone was pretty much illegal.
Now, visas are given
for these grooms and hot walkers.
Hot walkers, they never get paid
decently enough.
It's $200 or $300 a week,
not to survive on the outside world.
If you're living in a backstretch,
like a lot of our workers live,
then you're fine.
I would say that's enough to at least
send money home to your family.
Americans, we enjoy watching it,
but we're not going to go do the work.
Americans expect higher pay rate.
So, I feel like it's too much work
for the pay.
If backstretch work
were properly compensated,
it would be very welcome,
and it would also be a first.
Backstretch workers are
the backbone of an entire industry
that entertains us
and the reality is
that the horseracing industry
is a lucrative industry.
When you talk about
how the wage rules work,
for many years, employers were able
to vastly underpay H-2B workers
compared to what the going rate was
for many H-2B jobs.
Nationally, the wage
for H-2B landscaping workers
is $14.18 cents an hour.
But using the same dataset
that this is based on,
the OES national average wage
is $15.75 an hour.
The animal caretakers occupation,
which is where backstretch workers
fall under,
they earn 60 cents less on average
nationwide, or about just under 5%.
What it shows to me
is that nationwide,
the wages that H-2B workers are being
paid are in all cases, except one,
lower than
what the national average wage is.
The other challenge
for H-2B visa workers
is that their legal status in the US
is dependent upon that employment,
because of that power dynamic
that if they speak up,
and then if they are retaliated
they lose their legal status
in the US.
They can't just leave an employer
that's treating them poorly,
and go to an employer
that's treating them better.
And so visa workers, in general,
are a much more vulnerable population.
There was a forced labor case
in Louisiana
where workers were essentially trapped
inside of a crawfish company.
They couldn't go anywhere.
Employers would keep their passports.
And the Signal case,
at least 100 Indian workers
who were on an oil rig,
and it was a trafficking case, and
a $14 million settlement was won.
That's on the extreme end,
but there's countless ones of those.
Those employers are talking about
these backstretch workers
as if they're really essential
to making this whole industry run.
And they're so valuable that
they're getting paid $12.50 an hour.
There's a bit
of a disconnect there.
From the employer's perspective,
the biggest problem is
you have uncertainty
about the availability
of your workforce.
In the H-2B Program,
there are only 66 000 annual visas
available each year.
So, it is a competitive system.
The vast majority of H-2B visas
go to the landscaping industry.
And so, we're competing for the
remainder with every other industry.
If you are a horse trainer,
you want to know how many horses
I'm going to be able to train.
How many horses can I accept
from owners?
And if you don't know,
I'm going to have grooms,
and hot walkers,
and exercise riders on the ground.
How in the world
can you accept these horses
that you don't even know
if you can feed?
So it's terribly difficult
for trainers.
You have a very hard time
finding Americans
that want to do this kind of work.
And the visas are our only option.
There's a lot of uncertainty
about whether or not we're going
to have the labor force that we need.
The guest worker program
needs to be reformed.
First, you need stronger protections
into the law.
We also need
stronger enforcement
from the federal government
and from state governments
where it's appropriate.
But also, there is a dire need
in certain industries
for these seasonal workers,
and that's why we've got
to strike the right balance.
The thoroughbred industry is strangled
by the immigration system.
Our problem is
that the issue is political.
Immigration reform has become
more complicated
because it's become more partisan.
Democrat-backed policies have left
our borders overrun,
our detention facilities overwhelmed.
U-S-A, U-S-A!
Right now,
you have a Republican Party
that's still dominated by Donald Trump
and his way of thinking.
We need a wall right here.
This ain't a game. This is America.
And his number one political
punching bag was immigrants,
including a lot of the people
that come here to work.
Our country is full.
We want Mexico to stop.
The secretary of Homeland Security
calls for vastly more aggressive
enforcement of immigration laws
already on the books to reduce
the number of people here illegally.
Immigrants are welcome here.
We're joined together to celebrate
the extraordinarily successful
building of the wall
on the Southern border.
Immigration just became
a complete third rail issue
where anything having
to do with immigration,
it didn't matter if it was tech vizas
or dreamers or anything else,
all of a sudden
became something
that many Republicans
just wouldn't touch.
The Democratic Party has decided they
are the party of illegal immigration.
The hard right said, "No immigration
reform," and we're stuck.
Getting them to revisit this issue
has been very difficult.
So now, the Republican Party
platform has a plank
about reducing legal immigration to
the United States for the first time,
and that is
a very problematic feature,
if you're trying
to get to a deal.
President Biden introduced
his own immigration plan,
but that has really stalled
on Capitol Hill.
The country supports
immigration reform.
We should act. Let's argue over it.
Let's debate it, but let's act.
One, two, three.
A horse trainer,
a horse farm owner,
they don't want to necessarily
put their neck out, and say,
"I utilize the H-2B visa program.
All my workers are
foreign guests workers,"
because it's
a politically very hot issue.
It's not super politically
appropriate to be construed
as, in any way, un-American.
I voted for Donald Trump.
I voted for Obama.
I voted for Bill Clinton.
I voted for George Bush.
I just pick who's the best for the,,,
at the time that makes sense.
And I think
that's what most Americans,,,
They just want something
that makes sense.
The biggest problem is
when they have to go back.
A lot of them have to go back
and it's hard to get them right back.
They run into complications there, so
it's hard for everybody to be honest.
They're here.
They deserve a job and a life.
Horse racing has been devastated
by the lack of help.
They're going to have to come up
with a way
to get more people into the country
and have a program set up
to where they can fill these jobs.
It shouldn't be complicated
when you look at it that way.
I love this country.
You have many opportunities.
You make money. You can help
your family and your country.
Those feelings
that make you happy.
It's something
you feel in your heart.
And the most important reform
that could bring together a bipartisan
coalition to accomplish H-2B reform
is a path to citizenship
for these workers.
And I think the United States,
frankly, owes it to those workers
who have contributed so much
to our economy
to provide an opportunity for them
to become permanent residents
and ultimately
citizens of the United States.
The thing about being a permanent
resident is that you can speak back.
You're not deportable. You can hold
employers to higher standard.
It's not just about having people
come here
and using them up just as people
who are bodies out there working,
but showing them the respect,
I think they deserve,
as people that are contributing
to the economy of our country,
and putting them
on that path to citizenship.
My father was able to obtain
his green card in 1989.
In 2004,
he went out on his own
to become a trainer
and a horse owner.
He has always loved horses.
Til this day,
he still tells my mother
that he wants to buy
more horses.
He still goes to the backstretch
with friends and anybody
that comes around through
the seasons, through the meets.
Horse racing is
why he stayed in America.
He loves it. It's a great sport.
It definitely helps the immigrants
first, because it employs them.
It's one of the biggest places
where they go to get employed.
I do think they deserve
a path for citizenship,
because they work so hard.
They've been doing this
for many, many years.
They deserve to get it.
This has been a presentation
of HBO Sports.
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