Editor’s note: This is the last story in a four-part series appearing Sundays on immigrants who are living in the Glens Falls region. To read the rest of the series, go to poststar.com/highlights. Some of the names in this story have been changed to protect people who could face legal consequences if identified.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — Miguel, an experienced exercise rider who has been working at Saratoga Race Course for more than seven years, says he was born in Peru in a horse stall.
“Training and raising horses has been in my family for generations,” he said in between rides on a late July morning. He talked about the skill it takes to work with thoroughbred horses. “We are professionals,” he said.
Now married to an American citizen, Miguel is waiting for word on a pending green card application that has been filed for more than a year.
Three years ago, Miguel was picked up by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, better known as ICE, in Rochester while sleeping on a Greyhound bus.
And today, despite living and working in the U.S. legally, Miguel worries about the same thing happening again.
Add to that rumors of an impending ICE raid at the Saratoga track and his unease intensifies, especially after two downtown raids this summer.
“Everybody is really afraid. It feels like it’s the goal of the government to take out all immigrants from the country,” he said.
He believes he and others get stopped and asked for papers because of their skin color. “It feels like they are chasing us, like they don’t respect anybody, and even with papers you are never really free.”
Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yepsen said she talked to ICE agents about this summer’s downtown raids of restaurant employees.
“I asked, ’What are you doing?’ and they said, ‘Under Trump, there are new rules in town,’ ” Yepsen said. “They are arresting people at their residences, they are taken away in a van … they are splitting up families.”
ICE did not return The Post-Star‘s requests for comment about the Saratoga raids, despite repeated attempts to reach the agency by phone and email.
Yepsen said that even if those arrested have papers, they are being detained. “They need to ask for asylum,” she said. “And why are just brown men being picked up?”
Racehorse owner Jim Hooper wonders the same thing, saying that if a backstretch worker here illegally is white with blond hair, it’s unlikely he or she will get picked up.
Hooper co-owns Haven Oaks thoroughbred racehorse farm in Fort Edward with his wife, Sue Hooper. They do not hire undocumented workers, but he has seen an ICE arrest from the inside. Miguel was working for the Hoopers when he got picked up several years ago.
“He was my right-hand man, he is like my brother, we traveled together,” said Hooper, still unable to tell the story without tearing up. “Seventy-five percent of his pay was going to his family members in Peru.”
Since President Donald Trump took office in January, ICE arrests have increased more than 38 percent nationally, with an average of 400 arrests a day.
Of 650 people arrested nationwide from July 23 to 26, ICE reported that 73 were from families and 120 were unaccompanied children. Only 150 of the 650 arrested had criminal convictions, according to a government press release.
“Look, if we don’t have border security, if we don’t enforce the law that’s written in the books, you’re never going to control the border,” said ICE Acting Director Tom Homan during a June 28 press gaggle at the White House. “Why do you think we got 11 million to 12 million people in this country now? Because there has been this notion that if you get by the Border Patrol, you get in the United States, you have a U.S. citizen kid, no one is looking for you. But those days are over.”
Downtown Saratoga Springs was hit by ICE agents twice this summer, and the Saratoga community worries about more to come.
In late May and again in late June, ICE agents pulled white, unmarked government vans into a downtown parking area. Agents then spread out in cars and on foot to pick up undocumented workers near their Saratoga homes.
“Some have worked here for over seven years,” said Mayor Yepsen. “They are part of our community, they are part of our family. They are an important part of the Saratoga economy.”
In the summer sweep, 27 individuals from Mexico and Guatemala were arrested on visa charges and eventually transported to the Batavia Federal Detention Center, where they face immigration hearings that will determine their U.S. status.
So far, two men have been deported. According to Saratoga immigration lawyer David Meyers, among the 27 was an immigrant who had already applied for asylum.
“Under presidents Bush and Obama, if they applied for asylum, the government left them alone,” Meyers said. “Now with Trump, they are being picked up … they have changed their practice and not only people who have committed crimes, but people here without permission, are being picked up.”
No safe place
Backstretch workers said they are afraid to move about freely. They believe they’re safe on the backstretch, so they stay there.
But Meyers thinks they’re wrong: “In my opinion, there is nothing to prevent ICE from going on track property.”
The day before the track opened in July, the head of the New York Racing Association, Chris Kay, told business leaders in a press conference that he cannot stop ICE.
“If ICE shows up, do I block ICE at the doors? No. I’m going to abide by the law,” Kay said. “If they arrive, I can’t block the gates.”
Sue and Jim Hooper say workers are in short supply because they have been scared away. The big barns snap up the workers here legally, they said. So they have been forced to do their own groom and stable work.
The Hoopers have about 20 horses on their farm, but just one at the track for this summer meet — a 3-year-old filly, Courageous Change.
“One of the exercise riders told us that she was warned that ICE has assembled a task force for the track and that they plan to send a message,” said Hooper. “I had a guy tell me that one of the big trainers offered him $1,000 a week to groom horses because he couldn’t get the help.”
The Rev. Humberto Chavez doesn’t believe rumors about a raid.
“ICE is not going to warn us that they are coming,” Chavez said. “We have the same amount of track workers as we always have. What I’ve seen is ICE is looking for individuals with a rap sheet.”
Chavez also said it would be difficult for undocumented workers to be employed at the track, because everyone needs a current New York state identification card to get State Gaming Commission badges to work there. Nonetheless, he said that, because the worker population is always changing, it’s hard to pinpoint how many might be working at the track.
A few years back, Miguel married another woman (not his present wife) to stay in the U.S. legally. But the marriage was not working out and his visa expired.
At that time, he was working for Jim and Sue Hooper and helping Jim with Inherit the Gold, a graded stakes winner who is now retired at Haven Oaks.
Hooper had just gotten his trainer’s credentials and needed Miguel’s expertise.
“I was greener than green,” he said. “Miguel got on my horse … he spoke fluent English, he was honest and hardworking.”
Hooper said Miguel told him about the situation with immigration.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you go there and get a divorce, then we’ll work on your immigration status?’ I bought him the bus ticket to Ohio.”
But Miguel said he wasn’t able to complete that trip.
“It was 11 p.m. at the Rochester Greyhound bus stop. ICE boarded the bus and started asking people for papers; I was sleeping,” he said. “I was nice to them, I explained that my visa had expired, that I paid my taxes and that I had a Social Security card. I asked if they wanted to see my Social Security card.”
ICE agents told him that because he did not have papers they would have to take him to the Batavia detention center.
After several days, Miguel reached the Hoopers by phone.
“When he called and said, ‘I’m in jail,’ I was shocked,” Jim Hooper said.
Two days later, Sue Hooper went to Albany and met with the immigration judge. She had to post a $5,000 cash bond for his release.
According to immigration lawyer Meyers, the bond generally runs between $5,000 and $25,000.
“She had to sign papers that he would not work while he was waiting for his hearing,” said Jim Hooper. “The immigration officer threatened that she could go to jail if he worked for us.”
Both Jim and Sue Hooper said not allowing those out on bond to work creates an impossible situation. “They have to feed their families,” Jim said. “Immigration is making these mass raids and making the entire situation worse. Now there are families with no one to support them.”
Meyers said he could not comment on Miguel’s specific case because he did not review the paperwork.
Miguel, waiting for his green card decision, said he is always afraid.
“I can’t feel secure,” he said, and he sometimes wonders if he should remain in the U.S.
“If this is the last time I am in the U.S.,” he said, “then I will just have to say goodbye.”