The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, announcing a compromise with race track trainers who insist that they cannot find Americans willing to take the jobs, said Monday that 363 temporary work visas will be issued to illegal aliens for positions as grooms and exercise riders at the Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar tracks.
The decision to grant the H-2 visas--the first ever approved for the horse race industry in the United States--was compared by the immigration service district director for Los Angeles, Ernest Gustafson, to the government's traditional willingness to grant temporary work status to foreigners in this country to play major league baseball or perform as entertainers.
Gustafson and his immediate superior, Harold Ezell, regional commissioner of the immigration service, said they expect the trainers and tracks to intensify attempts to train and hire legal residents for the jobs. They said the visas will be valid only through Oct. 1, although it is possible that they will be renewed.
Gustafson said that after a series of raids at Southern California tracks conducted by the immigration service last year, during which more than 400 illegal aliens were seized, attorneys for the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Assn. asked the U.S. Labor Department to certify that Americans are unavailable to fill as many as 2,000 skilled and unskilled "backstretch" jobs at California tracks.
On Dec. 12, he said, the Labor Department certified such unavailability for the 363 skilled positions of grooms and exercise riders at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar. After that, the immigration service approved the issuance of the work visas, which may be acquired at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. He added that further certifications may be made later for such smaller tracks as Golden Gate Fields, Bay Meadows and Los Alamitos. Certifications for unskilled positions were refused.
In the meantime, Ezell and Gustafson said, they will continue to enforce the immigration laws at the tracks, arresting illegal aliens where they find them. They also said that under an arrangement with the California Horse Racing Board, immigration service agents have been present during recent relicensings of track workers for 1986.
Ezell said that about 800 of the workers have not shown up for relicensing and that he presumes that most of these are illegals aware of the immigration service's presence. Three illegal aliens who did show up were arrested.
Ezell characterized the decision to grant the temporary work visas as "an historical event," adding, "We hope it's the beginning of a solution of a long-term problem."
The decision was welcomed by executives of the three tracks affected, but questions were raised about it by two Los Angeles attorneys specializing in immigration problems.
'On the Right Road'
Marge Everett, chief operating officer of Hollywood Park, who was present at the news conference Monday morning in Los Angeles, said the visas "will hopefully put us on the right road," although she cautioned that finding permanent legal residents willing to take the available jobs on a long-range basis may be difficult. "Americans drift away from these jobs soon after taking them," she said.
Cliff Goodrich, Santa Anita vice president and assistant general manager, said later, "We are pleased because it buys some time. It will allow time to gradually have these people replaced." And Joe Harper, executive vice president and general manager at Del Mar, said, "The willingness to issue visas goes a long, long way toward recognizing the problem and at least giving it a big enough Band-Aid to allow us to deal with it."
However, Peter Schey, director of the National Center for Immigrants Rights Inc., said he cannot understand why the immigration service went to the trouble and expense of conducting a series of highly publicized raids if it were prepared to recognize all along that some aliens are necessary to fill some of the jobs in question.
"All that has been accomplished that I can see," he said, "is that some illegal workers have been converted to H-2 workers."
Concern About Trap
Antonio Rodriguez, director of the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, said he is concerned that what might appear to some to be a benefit for aliens may turn out to be a trap.
He said that if present track workers go to Tijuana to apply for the permits, they have in fact submitted to a "de facto deportation" that might be regarded as "a meaningful departure" by the immigration service. This, he said, could disqualify them for participation in amnesty programs under consideration by Congress that would be contingent on consecutive years of residency in the United States.
Rodriguez's concern was dismissed by Gustafson, who said that most of the illegals employed at the tracks have been in the country only one or two years, too short a time to qualify under any of the amnesty programs being considered.