Ocala Dreamin’

Since the beginning of our country, generation after generation has pursued the American Dream – the opportunity to work hard and better one’s economic situation no matter how humble the start. Our nation wasn’t just built on the backs of immigrants, it was formed by immigrants, including the founding fathers.

In 2001, Republican U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch and Democratic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin introduced the first DREAM Act, designed to create a path to permanent residency for illegal immigrants ages 12 to 35 to allow children of immigrants to pursue higher education or join the U.S. military. Recipients, who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 would have to live in this country demonstrating “good moral character” for at least four years, obtain a high school diploma or GED, and (males) register for Selective Service.

The long path to legal citizenship would begin with six years of conditional residency, requiring the applicant to complete two years of college or military service while demonstrating “good moral character”, which would earn them the permanent resident (“green card”) status required to eventually apply for citizenship.

Although the opportunity the bill would grant evoked the longstanding “American Dream” concept, it was actually an acronym for “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.”

Over the years, the DREAM act has been reintroduced with bipartisan support several times but was never passed by the Congress. In 2012, President Obama enacted the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, which protected immigrants meeting the criteria of the DREAM act from deportation, and DACA recipients became known as “Dreamers.” In September 2017, President Trump ended DACA, but has expressed his support for immigrants who “do a great job” and “work hard” to “have the incentive of, after a period of years, being able to become a citizen.”

In Northwest Marion County, out past the stop lights and street lights, are the expansive pastures whose venerable live oaks drip with Spanish moss and whose magnificent mares give birth to future Triple Crown contenders. On the Horse Capital of the World’s farms, working hard and doing a great job is the everyday routine which begins before the sun comes up. Grooms are cleaning stalls and feeding and attending to horses as early as 5 a.m. and exercise riders mount up to begin training at 6:00. When thousands of spectators enjoy watching these marvelous animals and the athletes who ride them compete at a Nations Cup or Grand Prix event, they don’t see the hardworking men and women who go to work in the dark to care for the horses every day, rain or shine, in the months and years leading up to the competition. Ocala Thoroughbred farm owner Jacqui de Meric has made it her mission to bring their stories into the light.

“I would trust any of them with my life,” de Meric says of the 47 full time employees, mostly Mexican immigrants, who work on her 320-acre farm. “They’re good people, they take pride in their work, and they love the horses,” she says. “We could not function without them.”

Marco, a DACA recipient, is one of those vital workers on her farm. He was brought to Ocala from Mexico by his parents when he was 15 years old, a year after his father found work as a groom on a horse farm in the area. Marco found part time work mucking stalls at the de Merics’ Manuden Farm while studying for the GED, which he passed with a record high score. Thirteen years later, he is an even more integral part of the farm’s operations.

“I love riding so they gave me the opportunity to ride,” he says of his current position as exercise rider. “People think it’s easy sitting on the back of a horse but it’s hard. It’s dangerous but I like it.”

When Marco broke his leg while riding a horse eight years ago, de Meric took him to the hospital and paid him for the time he couldn’t work. She says that’s just the way an employer should take care of good workers. Marco says Jacqui and husband Nick are his “heroes”, who taught him the business of buying and selling horses. “I am loyal to them because they are loyal with me,” he says.

After he finishes the 10-hour workday at Manuden Farm, Marco goes to a nearby stable he rents to work a few more hours caring for the horses he and his father purchased after years of diligent saving. Four years ago they sold a horse for “good money” that gave Marco enough to buy his own house, an accomplishment for any Millennial. Like many, he dreams of marrying his girlfriend and starting a family. He also worries what will happen when his DACA status expires in two years. And wonders if there will ever be a legal path to citizenship for his girlfriend, who came from Mexico as a nanny on a time-limited work visa.

“If they send me back there [Mexico] it will destroy all I built here,” he says. “What am I going to do – leave everything to go live somewhere I don’t know?”

His coworker Miguel also came to the U.S. as a teenager, knows a lot of undocumented immigrants in the community, but is no longer one of them after getting his green card last year.

“It took me 12 years to get it,” says the 35-year-old, who is married to an American citizen, born in California to Mexican parents. Miguel says his main motivation to fill out form after form, answer a seemingly neverending list of questions, and pay thousands of dollars to become a legal citizen was his children, ages 17, nine, and four. Like many, he works two jobs to support his family and says he came to the U.S. at age 19 because he “needed progress” and “heard people could come here and work hard and make money.” Miguel explains that one of the hardest challenges for undocumented immigrants is not having a driver’s license.

“I give them a ride when I can,” he says of neighbors that need help getting to work or to the grocery store, but says Chaplain Bob Miller of Ocala Farm Ministry is the man who “helps a lot of poor people,” and Miguel cuts trees and mows grass at the ministry’s community center any time he can.

Chaplain Bob, as he’s known to everyone, has been with Ocala Farm Ministry since its inception 14 years ago. As an ordained minister who could speak Spanish, he felt the need to minister to “a lot of under-represented people, socially, culturally and financially.” He describes what he does as “marry, bury, and everything a minister of a church does,” plus the dozens of extra things he does for area residents every day at the Robert Scanlon Community Center on 110th Street, just north of State Road 40, from counseling to document translation and writing character reference letters to assisting with basic household needs, but says his role of advocate may be the most important.

“We advocate with county commissioners, with the police, with the sherriff’s office,” he says. “I’m for law and order. I was born in this country, I served in Vietnam, but let’s be fair. If you can you give somebody a break.”

As a clergyman, Miller certainly has a big heart, but he views the issue of immigrant farm workers pragmatically, as an economic issue.

“The reason we need these people here is no one else is going to do their job, plain and simple,” he says. “You’ve got no option if you’re going to have horse farms – working with crazy horses and shoveling manure. No American is going to do that. You can look for employees all day that are legal but they will not come and they will not last.”

Both Governor Rick Scott and President Donald Trump have urged lawmakers to act to end illegal immigration, and Florida Congressman Ted Yoho supported the President’s decision to rescind DACA.

“The president’s decision to suspend the DACA program after a period of six months is the right thing to do,” Rep. Yoho said in a statement in September.

“I believe that legal immigration makes our country stronger, and illegal immigration makes us weaker,” Gov. Scott wrote in a statement last month. “I’ve long been an outspoken opponent of illegal immigration and I remain so. I believe that immigration policy becomes much simpler once we secure our borders and we put an end to illegal immigration.”

However, Gov. Scott did express support for some provisions to aid Dreamers.

“I refuse to watch these children be punished for the actions of their parents. The United States has become the home for these children — and this should absolutely not be a partisan issue, or even a political issue. While I understand that they did not arrive here in accordance with our country’s immigration laws, it is simply not right to hold these children accountable for that.”

President Trump spoke to lawmakers about immigration at the White House in January.

“Drugs are pouring into our country at a record pace and a lot of people are coming in that we can’t have,” he said. “So, in order to secure it, we need a wall.”

The President explained further in statements on Twitter.

“We need the Wall for the safety and security of our country. We need the Wall to help stop the massive inflow of drugs from Mexico, now rated the number one most dangerous country in the world.”

However, like Governor Scott, President Trump has expressed concern for Dreamers.

“I have a love for these people,” he said last September. “Hopefully now Congress will be able to help them.”

Congressman Yoho has said he supports a legal way for Dreamers to request legal residency.

“For those who came to the United States as children and to no fault of their own, I support a window of time for them to come forward and identify themselves without fear of deportation. I support providing a way for Dreamers who have registered under DACA with DHS to obtain legal status. Such legislation should go hand-in-hand with measures that reduce illegal immigration.”

Miller and de Meric say a meeting with Congressman Yoho helped them develop the immigration reform petition they are working on with Louisa Barton, Director of Equine Engagement for the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership (CEP). The petition asks lawmakers to “bring congressional attention to farm labor shortages and the need for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Barton acknowledges concerns about gang members or criminals seeking asylum here, but says their plan is designed to provide an option for “honest, decent people,” and she believes “the others are going to eventually leave because they can’t get legal.”

Barton says the proposal “would be a step in the right direction,” as it asks for the creation of a five-year visa designed to allow current immigrant workers who would pass background checks, obtain a driver’s license, and pay a fine to stay here legally.

“We’re talking about the people who get up at 4:00 in the morning to go to work,” she says, “who are reliable and love their job and love the horses. If we lose a big part of the equine workforce we are going to have a problem. There are a huge amount of them [immigrant workers] out at HITS, which is a $94 million a year in economic impact to Marion County. Those people who come here and spend money rely on having grooms, stall muckers and assistants, and without those people they can’t come here. If you don’t have staff you’ve got to cut back on how many horses you bring and train and compete with. So that affects us all financially – it’s an industry that’s 18 percent of our economy. We really need to try to keep the workers that we have.

“We’re talking about the families – good people with kids in school, families who’ve been here for years and years. The kind of people that will get involved in this petition are not the kind of people that need to be sent home.”

Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn, who has spent time visiting local horse farms and talking to equine workers, has expressed his support for the petition.

“The equine industry is a $2.6 billion industry in Ocala,” Guinn said. “These people make the wheels go round, so it would be a huge economic impact on our community if these folks went away… like you can’t even imagine. These people are hard working, nice people, that are paying taxes and having a positive effect on our community. If they weren’t here these farms would cease to exist; [the farm owners] can only muck so many stalls, so I don’t have a problem with them being here. This petition that we just signed addresses some of the issues about bringing them forward and paying some of the money. I just really don’t have a problem.”

Barton and de Meric have collected around 500 signatures for the petition, which they are working to make available online. They plan to take it to Rep. Yoho in the near future “to have him try to get this into the works.”

De Meric asks local residents, as they attend the HITS spring events and the downtown Parade of Nations events this month, to consider the equine workers behind the scenes. She and husband Nick came to Ocala in 1980 and lived paycheck to paycheck, sleeping in an 18-foot camper and showering in the barn while they saved money to buy a farm. Nick, an immigrant from England, went through a four-year process to get his green card.

“We’re not saying give them a free ride; we’re not saying go to the front of the line, we’re not saying amnesty,” she says. “They’re real people and they work hard. I’m proud to call them my friends.”

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