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 work-ers in his industry are likely undocumented. Likewise, studies have found that undocumented workers make up an estimated 28 per-cent 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 hous-ing 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.
“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.
In a telephone interview, Jorge Garcia, a 24-year-old Guatemalan immigrant who worked for seven years at the same landscaping company, said that he and his brother had also regularly worked on Dobbs’s property. The two brothers worked two and a half to three hours each week for more than three years on the upkeep of the lawns, gardens and trees at Dobbs’s house, Garcia said. He was hired to do that work even though, he said, “I don’t have papers.” Neither did his brother.
Originally from the town of Momostenango in Guatemala’s department of Totonicapán, Jorge came to the United States looking for work seven years ago. His brother Miguel, now 27, followed him soon after. As Jorge explained, the two of them had family they needed to support back home, including Miguel’s wife and three children.
But at his hourly wage of $9, Jorge said, he was “not able to save much money” after covering his rent and bills. Miguel was making only $8 an hour. “The pay is bad,” Jorge said. “There are no benefits, there’s no medical coverage — nothing.” Yet the landscaping work was sometimes dangerous, he said, especially when workers were required to prune Dobbs’s trees and taller bushes.
Jorge said that he’d come to America to earn better wages — “to live better.” However, his experience working as a landscaper, on Dobbs’s and other properties, was “the opposite” of that.
During one of Dobbs’s many shows devoted to immigration, in April 2006, the host described $10 an hour as “a decent wage, not, in my opinion, an adequate wage, but a decent wage.” He then turned to his viewers with a pointed question: “How much more would you be willing to pay each year for fruits and vegetables if it would improve working conditions and raise wages for farmworkers?”
At the time Dobbs said that, an undocumented Guatemalan worker laboring in his own yard, Miguel Garcia, was being paid only $8 an hour.
Responding to The Nation‘s request for comment from Lou Dobbs, Chad Wilkinson, producer of The Lou Dobbs Show, said by e-mail that “Lou will not be commenting for the piece.” Dobbs’s attorney, Robert Zeller, clarified by e-mail that Dobbs would only answer questions if posed on his live radio show. (The Nation agreed to appear on the show but only after publication of this article.)
I asked Mike Sedlak, the owner of Sedlak Landscaping, the contractor that maintains the grounds on Dobbs’s West Palm Beach property, whether Dobbs has ever inquired about the status of his employees. Sedlak said only, “I don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” and quickly got off the phone.
I also asked Missy Clark, the owner of North Run Farm, the stable in Warren, Vermont, where the Dobbs Group horses are housed, whether Dobbs or his daughter had ever inquired about the immigration status of the workers caring for Hillary’s horses. She said, “They’re very well aware that the people taking care of the horses are 100 percent legal,” and said she’d given the Dobbs family assurances to that effect. But she later described her difficulty obtaining work visas for many of her employees. “It was a big process and a total pain in the neck,” she said. “I had been working on it for years.”
According to Christine Biederman, a Dallas-based immigration lawyer hired by Clark to obtain visas for North Run’s employees, a California law firm Clark had initially hired had failed to deliver on visas it promised its clients and had gone out of business. Biederman took over and finally filed the visa applications for Clark’s workers in June 2009, including for workers caring for Dobbs Group horses. It took three months for these H-2B visa applications to be processed, Biederman said.
When asked whether the workers who look after Dobbs’s horses had legal immigration status before then, Bieder-man declined to comment.
“Imprisoned in a Palace”
Immigration attorney Laurie Volk explained that immigrant workers in jobs designated “low-skilled” are caught in a bind because “there’s a demand for their work, but there’s no way for them to do it legally.” “There’s no visa categories — or there’s limited visas — for unskilled labor,” she said.
For undocumented workers who have been in the United States for more than a year without status, being apprehended by immigration authorities poses a risk of being deported and barred from re-entry for ten years. That risk was very real for many of the workers who labored on Dobbs’s properties, since many of them were in the United States for several years without status. The risks of apprehension were particularly great for the stable workers, whose work caring for the Dobbs Group horses forced them to travel constantly—including to border areas closely monitored by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.
Salinas traveled back to see his three kids and wife in Mexico on four occasions, but to avoid being apprehended he had to travel by bus, an exceptionally long journey from Vermont. For his part, Gomez is so afraid he will not be able to return to the United States that he has not seen his mother and brothers at all since immigrating six years ago, at the age of 18.
To avoid the risk associated with driving while undocumented, most of the workers interviewed for this piece don’t ever drive, which imposes upon their lives an extreme isolation, given that Dobbs’s horses are stabled in rural Vermont. Workers relied on their manager to transport them once a week to buy groceries at a store a half-hour’s drive away. As Gomez told me, “Here one can’t leave.” This arrangement left the stable workers feeling, as Esperanza put it, like they were “imprisoned in a palace.”
Yet even such precautions as not driving and not traveling home are no guarantee of safety. On the morning of Octo-ber 5, 2009, Miguel Garcia was arrested by undercover ICE agents while he was on his way to his work cleaning Miami office buildings. (After four years of landscaping at Dobbs’s and other properties, he’d quit because of the low pay.) “He was waiting for the train — nothing more,” his brother Jorge explained. “They brought him to the jail.” After a week in immigration detention, Miguel was deported to Guatemala.
Dobbs has long championed such enforcement measures. Yet according to Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda, a UCLA professor and author of a recent Center for American Progress report, “Raising the Floor for American Workers,” these measures “only serve to push undocumented workers further under the table, lowering their wages and the wages of native workers as well.”
Commenting on this scapegoating of undocumented workers, Hinojosa-Ojeda remarked, “The irony is that the biggest users of services of the undocumented are affluent white people.” In the case of Lou Dobbs, who made his name and his fortune lambasting “illegals” and their employers, the irony is breathtaking.
Research support for this article was provided by The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.