SARATOGA SPRINGS — The conspicuous white vans showed up in downtown Saratoga Springs just as the summer tourist season was gearing up.
Local residents soon learned that the vans, parked for days, were from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which had been monitoring Latino workers at local restaurants. They wound up arresting 27 people for being in the country illegally.
Word quickly reached racetrack workers at Belmont Park who migrate north every July. They work for trainers in the backstretch barn area at the Saratoga Race Course for the six-week thoroughbred racing meet that runs through Labor Day weekend and attracts throngs of well-to-do visitors.
Like at most racetracks across the country, many of the workers are Latin American immigrants. They live in ramshackle dorms in the backstretch at Belmont, which straddles the border between Queens and Long Island. About 1,100 of them stay in similarly rundown housing on Saratoga’s backstretch while handling low-paying stable and horse care work that helps keep the race season going.
But this summer, some workers stayed away from Saratoga, fearful that there would be more immigration arrests.
“They heard that ICE went into restaurants and asked all the workers for their papers,” and were anxious that something similar would happen at the racetrack, said Mario Alvarado, 30, a Mexican immigrant who works as an exercise rider at the Saratoga track.
Alvarado said he is a U.S. citizen, but added that other workers, whose status was less secure, were wary of the Trump administration’s more aggressive approach to immigration enforcement.
“If you get a speeding ticket or in any kind of trouble, they can take away your papers and send you back to your country,” said Rodrigo Olivares, 44, another exercise rider who was sitting with Alvarado in front of their backstretch dorm. As a result, some barns were understaffed, they said.
Sean Gilpin, 21, an immigrant from Jamaica who works as an exercise rider at Saratoga Race Course. (Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times)
Sean Gilpin, 21, an exercise rider and a Jamaican immigrant, said he had a green card, but that he knew backstretch workers without legal status. They work for trainers who will pay them in cash at a lower rate because they are unauthorized, he said, and often confine themselves to the backstretch and send co-workers for food and other errands outside the track.
Leonard D’Arrigo, a lawyer in Albany who helps trainers obtain seasonal visas for immigrant workers, said immigration officials had reviewed trainers’ employment records at Saratoga looking for undocumented backstretch workers. He said his recent interactions with immigration officials left him with the impression that a raid of the backstretch was possible.
“The track is a prime target because ICE knows they have, all in one place, hundreds of people who may be undocumented,” he said
A spokesman for ICE, Khaalid Walls, said the arrests here in May and June were “targeted enforcement” that were made on the street and were the result of an “ongoing investigation.” Nine of the 27 people detained were charged with having re-entered the country illegally after having been deported, he said, which is a felony.
Walls would not comment on whether the agency had any enforcement plans involving the racetrack.
A spokesman for the New York Racing Association, which runs the Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga racetracks, Patrick McKenna, said the number of workers residing on the backstretch this season was about 1,100, about the same as in previous years, and that he knew of no immigration enforcement actions at the track this season.
The association does not employ the backstretch workers, McKenna said, so it is up to the trainers to verify their immigration status.
When asked about the association’s policy regarding dealing with immigration officials or allowing immigration agents access to track property, McKenna said in a statement that the organization “abides by all local, state and federal laws and guidelines.”
The Rev. Humberto Chavez, a chaplain who ministers to backstretch workers was dubious about the possibility of a raid since immigration officials seemed to be targeting immigrants with criminal records, not conducting wide-scale sweeps.
With immigration regulations and enforcement tightening in recent years, he said, the overwhelming majority of workers at Saratoga have legalized their status so that only a small percentage of the workers would be vulnerable to a raid.
“It’s a matter of anxiety” resulting largely from rumor, exaggeration and miscommunication of events such as the arrests early this summer.
Saratoga Race Course. (Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times)
Joanne Yepsen, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, called those arrests disturbing and contrary to the inclusive culture of a thriving, tight-knit town that benefits greatly from Latinos working in restaurants and at the track.
“So, if ICE is looking for violent criminals, to my knowledge, they’re not going to find them here,” she said.
Diana Barnes, 57, a professor of Spanish literature and U.S.-Mexico Border Studies at nearby Skidmore College who has worked with backstretch workers as part of the Backstretch Employee Service Team, said workers, were “looking over their shoulders all the time.”
Some workers were initially reticent to leave the track, not even to take a shuttle to the local Walmart, she said, though that kind of intense worry seems to have eased since no immigration enforcement has taken place. Still, even if nothing happens here, some workers worry that they would still be vulnerable once they return to Belmont.
Many backstretch regulars said immigration concerns have been heightened by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric against Latinos.
“Let’s face it, since the new president was elected, most of the Mexicans think they’re not wanted here,” said Gary Contessa, a top thoroughbred trainer who employs 26 mostly Latino workers to care for 30 horses at Saratoga. “They feel like the government is looking for an excuse to push them out of the country.”
Contessa said that employing an undocumented worker carries a $10,000 fine, “I won’t even give a paycheck to a new employee if he doesn’t have the proper paperwork.”
Miguel Contreras, a Mexican immigrant with legal status who works as an exercise rider at Saratoga, said workers were well aware of this.
“Trainers won’t hire you unless you have your papers” proving you are in the country legally, he said. “You get scared that, even if you have all your papers, if you get a little drunk, or have a fight, they’ll arrest you and kick you out of the country.”
During the Saratoga meet, Contreras lives in a backstretch dorm, in a dank room with bunk beds, his sparse possessions neatly arranged on the concrete floor.
It is typical of the threadbare housing where workers live rent-free near the barns, a part of the backstretch unseen by most track visitors. It is a place where grooms muck out stalls and hot walkers and exercise riders loosen up the high-performance horses.
“You have horses sell for $1 million and here in the backside people live worse than pigs,” said Olivares, who emigrated from Mexico when he was 15 and eventually became a citizen.
He sat in front of his dorm, which abuts a luxury property owned by the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who keeps expensive horses there. The proximity reflects the gaping disparity between the austerity of the backstretch and the glamour and wealth of high-stakes racing.
Affluence and pageantry fills the Victorian-era clubhouse and grandstand, where a bottle of water sells for $6, and a recent auction of horses rang up $53 million in sales. Track officials said the total amount wagered on Saratoga races this summer was on pace to be its highest ever: more than $350 million by the midway-point of the meet.
“It’s a total dichotomy,” D’Arrigo said. “It’s two different worlds. The backstretch is almost like a third-world country and you have the wealth on the other side.”
At the backstretch, some workers shared raid stories.
Juan Gonzalez, 52, an assistant trainer for Contessa, recalled a dozen years ago when teams of immigration agents stormed the Saratoga backstretch, chasing and tackling workers jumping out of barn windows.
Contreras recalled being in the paddock of the Santa Anita Park track in California when a worker’s warning — “¡Inmigración!” — sparked chaos. Latino grooms abruptly dropped the reins from thoroughbreds and scattered amid all the pre-race pageantry, setting the horses loose.
“Americans won’t do this work,” said Alvarado, the Mexican-born exercise rider. “That’s why it’s 90 percent Spanish people back here. We’re doing the dirty jobs Americans don’t want to do.”