Lou Dobbs, Immigrant-Basher, Uses Undocumented Workers on his Horse Farm
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Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
In Lou Dobbs's heyday at CNN, when he commanded more than 800,000 viewers and a reported $6 million a year for "his fearless reporting and commentary," in the words of former CNN president Jonathan Klein, the host became notorious for his angry rants against "illegal aliens." But Dobbs reserved a special venom for the employers who hire them, railing against "the employer who is so shamelessly exploiting the illegal alien and so shamelessly flouting US law" and even proposing, on one April 2006 show, that "illegal employers who hire illegal aliens" should face felony charges.
Since he left CNN last November, after Latino groups mounted a protest campaign against his inflammatory rhetoric, Dobbs has continued to advocate an enforcement-first approach to immigration, emphasizing, as he did in a March 2010 interview on Univision, that "the illegal employer is the central issue in this entire mess!"
His scheduled October 9 address at the Virginia Tea Party Convention will mark his second major Tea Party address of the year, reviving questions about whether the former CNN host is gearing up for an electoral campaign. He recently told Fox's Sean Hannity that he has not ruled out a possible Senate or even presidential run in 2012.
But with his relentless diatribes against "illegals" and their employers, Dobbs is casting stones from a house—make that an estate—of glass. Based on a yearlong investigation, including interviews with five immigrants who worked without papers on his properties, The Nation and the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute have found that Dobbs has relied for years on undocumented labor for the upkeep of his multimillion-dollar estates and the horses he keeps for his 22-year-old daughter, Hillary, a champion show jumper.
Dobbs lives in a sprawling white mansion on his 300-acre estate in Sussex, New Jersey, where he and his family run a horse farm. In 2005 he acquired another house—a spacious multimillion-dollar winter holiday home in Eagle Isle, the most exclusive enclave of the Ibis Golf and Country Club, a gated community in West Palm Beach, Florida. It offers his daughter a place to stay during her competitions at the Wellington Winter Equestrian Festival, one of the most important events in the horse show world.
Dobbs's daughter keeps five European Warmbloods, a breed that often fetches close to $1 million apiece. In the official results of her competitions, her horses' owner is always listed as The Dobbs Group—a corporate entity for which few details are available on the public record. However, incorporation documents and other state records reveal it to be a New Jersey company of which Lou Dobbs is president. This same company also owns the copyright on Dobbs's books.
The upkeep of Dobbs's multiple properties creates no small demand for labor in two sectors where undocumented immigrants are known to be particularly prevalent. Jay Hickey, president of the American Horse Council, the horse industry's main lobby group, suggested in 2009 that more than half of the workers in his industry are likely undocumented. Likewise, studies have found that undocumented workers make up an estimated 28 percent of workers in landscaping. In both of these sectors, the use of contractors is commonplace, so it is not surprising that Dobbs has relied on third parties to supply the labor he needs. Vicky Moon, author of A Sunday Horse: Inside the Grand Prix Show-Jumping Circuit, explained that contracting out the care of one's horses "alleviates the time involved in coordinating the horses' care, transport, and management but it also removes the responsibility of hiring competent grooms, providing housing and meals, possibly paying Social Security taxes, health insurance and, most important, making extra sure they are legal."
Dobbs has heaped scorn on the government for using contractors that hire undocumented immigrants. On CNN in 2007, he called private firms that oppose verification requirements for their contractors' employees "ridiculous." Yet interviews with several such employees show that Dobbs has been far from vigilant about the status of workers laboring on his own properties.
"I Looked After Dobbs's Horses While I Was Illegal"
This year, Hillary Dobbs became the youngest-ever horse show rider to win $1 million in prize money. While all horses require extensive maintenance, the labor entailed in the upkeep of competition horses like the ones ridden by "Dobbs's million dollar baby" (as the New York Post dubbed Hillary) is particularly strenuous.
Every November, all five of The Dobbs Group's show-jumping horses must be transported from their summer stables in Vermont to their winter stables in Wellington, Florida. The workers are transported to the tropics too, returning to New England with the horses in April. They ride in trucks each way alongside their expensive equestrian charges, tending to the horses' needs throughout the thirty-two-hour journey. Their return to Vermont marks the start of a new annual circuit of horse shows—an exhausting schedule during the spring, summer and fall months that entails constant travel between their Vermont base and horse shows around the country. At these shows, it is not unusual for the grooms who care for Dobbs's horses to rise in the middle of the night or in the predawn hours to clean, brush and prepare the horses for a training session or early morning competition.
For years, undocumented immigrants from Mexico have been relied upon to meet these labor demands.
A 36-year-old Mexican immigrant I'll call Marco Salinas was working with a group of horses in a stable at the bustling Wellington Winter Equestrian Festival when I approached him for an interview. (Fearing deportation or job loss, Salinas, like the other workers interviewed for this story, asked that neither his real name nor the name of his employer be used.) Several hours later, when he finished his ten-hour workday, Salinas recounted how he had come to the United States five years ago for a job. Seated on an outdoor bench near the stable, the Mexico City native told the story of how he had crossed the Yuma Desert on foot, from the Mexican city of San Luis Río Colorado and into the United States, eluding the border patrol.
Salinas said he braved the journey for one reason—because he had the promise of a job on the other end. An old friend of Salinas's worked as a groom with some of the horses owned by Dobbs, and he had sent word that Salinas could be hired on as a groom at the Vermont stable contracted to care for the Dobbs Group horses.
Salinas got the job, he said, and worked at it for more than two years without documents until he was finally able to obtain a guest-worker visa designed for seasonal foreign workers (the same kind of visa denounced as a form of "indentured servitude" on Dobbs's CNN show).
I asked Salinas, still clad in his work clothes—a polo shirt and jeans—about Dobbs, the owner of the horses he cared for. But the father of three simply flashed a disarming grin, let out an easygoing laugh and politely declined to comment.
In his work as a groom for Dobbs's horses, Salinas said he regularly started at 5 am and did not get off until after 6 in the evening. According to Pedro Gomez, another undocumented worker, who cared for Dobbs Group horses in Vermont and Florida, the workday during horse shows like the three-month-long Wellington Winter Equestrian Festival was typically twelve hours or longer.
I caught up with Gomez, who cared for Dobbs's horses for a year in 2008 and 2009, at a different Florida stable, where he now works. A native of the Oaxaca region of Mexico, Gomez, now 24, came to the United States to work when he was only 18. Seated on a plastic chair in the dim stable, wearing baggy blue jeans and a T-shirt, he told me he desperately wants legal status. "My situation with immigration is bad," he said, "because I [still] don't have papers." For him, documentation would mean "better work."
When Gomez worked for the Vermont-based stable contracted by Lou Dobbs, his wages were $500 per week, and he typically worked sixty-five hours, meaning he was earning only slightly above minimum wage. During shows in which Gomez was caring for the Dobbs Group horses, Dobbs's daughter would sometimes give him a $100 weekly tip, according to Gomez. But he says he was never paid overtime.
While there is some disagreement over whether federal labor laws apply to horse stable workers, according to West Palm Beach labor lawyer Jill Hanson, the working conditions described by these stable workers likely violate both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act—which requires time-and-a-half pay for hours worked beyond a forty-hour workweek—and a Florida law that requires overtime pay for any workday longer than ten hours.
I sat down with Marco Esperanza, 39, another Mexican worker who cared for Dobbs Group horses, after hours in the stable where he was then working in Wellington, Florida. Seated on the concrete barn floor, his back against the wooden siding of a horse stall, he explained that the work requires him to "be available twenty-four hours a day." When a horse is sick, Esperanza said, "it doesn't matter what time it is: in the night or at dawn, you have to check the horse. You always, always have to be at work." When I asked whether he had a green card or guest-worker visa while he worked for the stable hired by Dobbs, he shook his head: "I looked after Dobbs's horses while I was illegal."
At the Vermont stable that cared for the Dobbs Group horses from spring through autumn while Gomez worked there, the workers lived right at the horse barn. This arrangement has benefits, as Gomez points out; for example, the workers don't have to pay rent. However, according to Gomez, their quarters—a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of the barn—were extremely crowded. When Gomez lived there, nine workers were packed into the small apartment, and he had to share a bedroom with four of them.
When I asked whether the Dobbs family knew that undocumented workers were caring for their horses, Gomez responded by saying that at least in the case of Hillary Dobbs, "I believe she knew." The stable owner knew "that some people didn't have papers," Gomez said, and had even taken precautions to keep the workers away from the immigration agents who often patrol the areas around horse shows. Gomez said it was hard to believe that Dobbs's daughter, who was in close contact with these undocumented workers almost every weekend, could have been unaware of their status.
Hillary Dobbs did not respond to repeated attempts to contact her for comment.