Lou Dobbs, American Hypocrite
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."
Lou Dobbs regularmente arremetía contra los “empleadores de ilegales.” Sin embargo, el propio Dobbs utilizó mano de obra de indocumentados para que trabajaran en sus propiedades multimillonarias y que atendieran los caballos que le tiene a su hija Hillary. Lea este artículo en Español.
Undocumented workers are so thoroughly woven into the fabric of our economy that even two professional immigrant-bashers, Lou Dobbs and Meg Whitman, have found it difficult to avoid relying on their labor.
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.
"The Pay Is Bad" for Work in Dobbs's Gardens
Nor are stable workers the only undocumented immigrants who have worked on Dobbs's properties. Rodrigo Ortega, a native of Chiapas, Mexico, who has lived and worked in the United States for fourteen years, was busy tending the immaculate garden of a large luxury home under the blazing afternoon sun when I approached him. Though he had been working since 7 am, he agreed to talk once his ten-hour workday ended.
Speaking with The Nation in a Mexican restaurant where Univision blared in the background, Ortega, who had worked for a Florida company contracted by Dobbs to do garden maintenance on his West Palm Beach property, described himself as "an immigrant who doesn't have papers." Ortega said he had been responsible for "cutting the grass, cutting the trees, cleaning the garden—all the garden work" at Dobbs's house for more than three years.
Ortega, who was one of approximately fifteen Latin American employees of the company, recalled meeting Dobbs one day while he was working on his garden: "He told me, in Spanish, that his name was Luis." According to Ortega, the two had a brief interaction, during which Dobbs instructed him to tell his boss that a certain plant needed to be moved in the garden.
Ortega said his status was far from a secret. His employer "knew very well that the majority of us didn't have papers," he said, but this was "never a problem." Employees of the landscaping firm "never needed to have a good Social Security number" as a condition of work, he said.
Nor were they ever paid the overtime they are entitled to under federal labor laws, although they typically worked a fifty-hour week, plus a monthly shift on a Saturday.