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Why President Trump's immigration policy could affect golf's workforce more than you think

February 25, 2017

In the spring of 2013, I found myself inside a dimly lit restaurant in suburban Atlanta, sharing a booth with a man I had met earlier that day at a nearby golf course. The 70-year-old, who spoke with me on the condition that I not use his real name, had spent two decades caring for courses in the area. He talked about the work with pride: the greens cut, the bunkers raked, the pieces of trash—no matter how small—immediately swept up and thrown away. “Quiero todo perfecto,” he said. He wanted everything to be perfect.

But when the topic turned to his life as an undocumented immigrant, pride turned to fear. In 2011, Georgia passed a bill that granted local police the power to check the immigration papers of people they stop. Since then, he rarely ventured outside except to go to work. He sent money home each month to care for his ailing wife in rural Mexico. If he were deported, how would he support her? He ended the interview in tears.

In the wake of President Trump’s executive orders on immigration, signed on January 25, the fear I saw in the maintenance worker’s eyes has swept through immigrant communities across the country. Virtually all undocumented immigrants are now “priorities” for deportation, not just those convicted of a crime. To implement the crackdown, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is planning to add 10,000 agents and deputize local law enforcement officials to enforce immigration laws. This will not be subtle. Last week, Trump called the effort a “military operation.”

Golf as we know it couldn’t exist without Latino immigrants. They make up two-thirds of the maintenance workforce, doing critical but easily overlooked work. Nearly every golfer has played on courses maintained by them, including Trump. Last year, when I visited the Trump National Golf Club in Palos Verdes, Calif., maintenance workers told me that of the roughly two dozen workers, all but one was a Latino immigrant. (Each employee I spoke with had originally crossed the border illegally, but later become a legal resident.)

Other industries that rely on Latino immigrants are anxious about what the future might bring. “If we sent all these people back, it would be a total disaster,” one California farmer recently told The New York Times.

There are no hard numbers about the percentage of golf-maintenance workers who are undocumented, but it’s likely significant. The three states with the largest population of undocumented immigrants are California, Florida, and Texas. In those states, about 80 percent of the maintenance workforce is Latino. During my reporting I visited many courses and spoke with dozens of undocumented immigrants. And when I went undercover as a golf-course maintenance worker, the workers who patiently taught me the tricks of the trade were not authorized to work in the country.

Photo by Alan P. Pittman

The resulting article was reported in 2013 and published in 2014, but the key theme it explores—golf’s dependence on immigrant labor—has only gained relevance. The article centers on Francisco Mora, a maintenance worker in the Palm Springs area. “We get up early and try to stay out of the way,” he told me. “We don’t know anything about the players, and they don’t know anything about us.”

Mora graciously allows the reader into his life, sharing his worries and hopes for an audience he’ll never know. It’s likely we don’t know much about the maintenance workers at our local course, but each, like Mora, has a unique history. In the wake of Trump’s executive orders on immigration, it’s worth reflecting on golf’s largely invisible workforce. What would happen to the golf industry if thousands of maintenance workers were suddenly swept away? And what would happen to the workers, and their families?