LEXINGTON, Ky. — Horse farms. World-renowned racetracks. A nursery. A tobacco farm. A horse stud farm. An equine hospital.
Those were several of the places in Kentucky that Chicago Auxiliary Bishop John R. Manz visited in September to meet “people on the move” on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
For over 10 years, Manz has made annual visits to dioceses across the United States to talk to migrant workers and to assess their pastoral and other needs. He makes recommendations to the local dioceses and the bishops’ conference on how the church can better minister to these often-invisible groups.
According to a recent Pew Research Center report, the number of immigrants living in the United States without legal permission is 11.1 million, a number that has held steady for six years. Migrant workers often do farm work such as hand-picking crops like tomatoes or tobacco. They also work in chicken or meat processing factories, on nurseries or, as is the case in Kentucky, on horse farms and racetracks.
“There’s no other visits we’ve done that focus on racetracks,” Manz told the Catholic New World, Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper. “If you look there’s more than 20 good-sized race tracks throughout the country. Figure there’s at least 300 at each track that are people on the move, many undocumented, and the number of people adds up.”
One highlight of the Sept. 19-22 trip, Manz said, was visiting Churchill Downs in Louisville, where the Kentucky Derby is held each May.
“I was glad we had the chance to go to Churchill Downs, which is the mother of all of the tracks, you might say, and to realize how big that it is on the backside,” he said. The backside is the part of the track most people never see, where the barns and the lodgings for migrant workers and others are located.
Many migrant workers in the horse racing industry go where the horses go, moving from Kentucky to places like Louisiana and Florida in the winter when races are held there.
Those working on the backside come mainly from Mexico and Guatemala.
“Many people would be surprised at how many (workers) are from out of the country that are immigrants,” said the bishop, who is a member of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration.
Hot walkers — those who walk the horses around the barns after a race or training session to cool them down — earn about $250 a week. The next level up are grooms and then exercise riders.
Moving up from exercise riders to trainers is not possible for those in the country without documents.
“I always remember the phrase Pope Francis uses a lot about ministering to those on the periphery. This definitely fits in there because these are the folks the church almost has to seek out and that’s not an easy thing to do because some of the owners don’t like it and they are going to be suspicious,” Manz said.
“I would guess that 20 or 30 years ago, there were a lot more labor violations. It’s not perfect now, but I think they all have raised it up a little.”
A few times on this visit he encountered people in the U.S. working on contracts with H-2A visas. These visas are for the agricultural industry and allow farmers and growers to legally hire people from outside the United States to fill positions they cannot find anyone locally to do. The owners bring the workers over for an allotted period of time and also provide them health care.
People at Lane’s End Farm whom Manz met at Keeneland Racetrack during the annual horse sales told him that to get the H-2A they have to prove they made the effort to find people locally who will do the work. Lane’s End regularly posts job openings on its website but doesn’t receive any responses.
“That argument that people say you’re taking away jobs from people here, well they may be unemployed but they don’t want to do that work,” Manz said.
In the case of Bluegrass Nursery in Shelbyville, the men were hired for about eight months at a time on the H-2A visa and worked six days a week growing plants and flowers for nearby Kroger stores. While they don’t have to worry about immigration officials picking them up, they are isolated out in the country with no easy means of getting on or off the farm. It’s not an ideal situation.
Workers told the bishop that Bluegrass is the only farm in the area that hires H-2A workers. The rest, it was assumed, hire migrant workers.
Because Manz and his group visited places that treated their workers pretty well, he said, “you have to assume there are others that certainly don’t come up to that standard.”
In the case of Barton Tobacco and Corn Farm in Lexington, farmer Bob Barton really seemed to care about his workers, according to Manz.
“He had a lot of respect for the folks there,” he said. “It was a mixed group working on the farm. He seemed to have a real sense of the people there and what they’re going through. In my visits throughout I’ve found people — growers and owners — they aren’t all evil and uncaring. Especially the guys who aren’t real big.”
Conditions for most workers are better than 20 or 30 years ago.
“On the tobacco farm they made it clear even though it’s nothing like it used to be, still those who work it have labor-intensive jobs,” the bishop said.
Of course, farmers don’t earn nearly as much as those in the horse industry.
“It’s a multibillion-dollar industry around the world,” Manz said. “I don’t know how you can really justify some of that if I had to go to bed at night and know I was spending all that money on a horse. It’s a real contrast in society to show what we’re willing to spend money on. Along with it, the big races, they have an increase in prostitution and human trafficking.”
These are all subcategories of workers who can get overlooked because they are on the fringe.
“They get drawn into it and have nobody to speak for them,” Manz said, adding that these are great opportunities for the laity or deacons to help out where priests can’t.
During these trips, Manz spends a lot of time listening to the personal stories of workers. Migrant or undocumented workers come here because there are no jobs at home. In most cases they would rather stay in their home countries but are looking for better lives for their families and themselves. When they come here they can face dangerous working conditions, deportation and abuse by bosses.
“It’s a humanitarian crisis,” Manz said. “There has to be concern for what is going on because it affects us, and we are involved in it because we’re benefiting from the work these migrants are doing.”