This post has been updated.
A police officer and two state employees on Wednesday kicked two contractors for the New Mexico Republican Party out of a facility recently designated as short-term interim housing for a handful of asylum-seeking families for filming the facility without permission.
The state party contractors were recording the living spaces and supplies on the facility grounds and can be heard in the videos criticizing Democratic politicians for bringing “gimmegrants” by “the busload” to the facility.
Expo New Mexico spokesperson Wyndham Kemsley confirmed the incident to TPM Thursday morning.
“They didn’t have an appointment with anybody, and they were just kind of wandering around,” he said.
A video that the New Mexico Republican Party posted on its official Facebook page shows two staff members from the fairgrounds, Expo New Mexico, approaching the GOP contractors after they filmed inside the dormitories. “This is a closed campus,” one of the staff members said. “So when you guys come out here, you guys gotta check in and have an appointment.”
One of the contractors argued with the staff members, asking how they knew the asylum seekers had been vetted.
A police officer then interjected. “She’s told you to leave, so now it’s time to stop recording,” he said. “You have freedom of speech, but not here.”
In an interview with TPM Thursday night, one of the contractors, Dinah Vargas, told TPM she hadn’t seen any signs on the premises indicating they couldn’t walk around. She called the facility an “open campus” and said she “showed up in particular with the intent to demonstrate and show the conditions there.” She also disputed that she was kicked out, arguing that she and her partner were on their way out anyways by the time they were confronted by facility staff.
Still, over two videos filmed from from Expo New Mexico Tuesday and Wednesday, the two contractors, Vargas and Stella Padilla, indicated they were aware they shouldn’t be walking around the area.
“We’ll probably be kicked out any minute but that’s okay,” Vargas said at the top of Tuesday’s video, as she and Padilla entered the facility and spotted an employee eyeing them. A few seconds later, as she and Padilla navigated the bunks inside the facility, she added: “Hurry! Let’s go see the day room. We’ve gotta walk fast because we’ve got people behind us.”
Vargas noted earlier, after spotting a police car on the drive in to the facility: “We’ve got po-po.”
Shortly before being confronted by facility staff on Wednesday, video showed Vargas mocking the asylum seekers at the facility.
“We don’t want to be kicked out because we don’t got our asylum papers,” she said. “Can’t have anything unless you do.” She added a few minutes later, after she and Padilla were kicked out: “They’re going to protect the gimmegrants.”
On the phone with TPM, Padilla confirmed to TPM that she and Vargas did occasional paid staffing work for the state party, in addition to volunteering.
They are relatively new members of the New Mexico Republican Party. Padilla unsuccessfully ran as a Democrat to be Albuquerque’s mayor in 2017. She didn’t get enough valid signatures to get on the ballot, and the two women changed their party alignment after the race.
Padilla said she and Vargas weren’t looking for a confrontation.
“Our goal was filming the immigrants coming down — for information, to find out how many are coming,” she said. “I think every city’s interested in who’s coming to their town.”
The state of New Mexico and city of Albuquerque, both led by Democrats, announced Tuesday that Expo New Mexico, the host of the annual state fair and other events, would be used as short-term transition housing for asylum seekers who’ve passed initial screening interviews and will later live with host families. Asylum seekers are expected to stay roughly 72 hours or fewer in the facility before moving on, though no one is currently living in Expo New Mexico’s buildings.
Between donations, volunteer help and existing operating funds, the interim housing won’t cost taxpayers a dime, Expo New Mexico General Manager Dan Mourning told KOAT Wednesday: “Sixty people taking a shower I don’t think is going to hurt us too bad,” he said.
Still, hosting the asylum seekers on state land has riled some extremists. TPM became aware of the New Mexico Republican Party video through the Facebook page for the United Constitutional Patriots, an armed militia group that recently made headlines for making mass “arrests” at the border and in some cases falsely identifying themselves as federal agents. The militia’s leader was recently arrested for possessing a gun as a felon. A bomb threat was called into the federal courthouse in Albuquerque as his arraignment and detention hearing began there Monday, prompting an evacuation.
Underneath the cross-post of the Republican Party’s video on the UCP Facebook page, someone commented, “Nothing will happen until we band together an pick up arms…”
Fairground dormitories like those at Expo New Mexico are regularly used in times of need, Kemsley, the spokesman for Expo New Mexico, told TPM.
“We’ve always been open to helping those in need in crisis,” he said. “During the wildfires last year in California, a ton of fairgrounds across California opened their doors to people who were displaced by the fires or trying to seek shelter. It’s a good thing that we have the ability to do.”
He also said the fairgrounds are well-equipped to keep asylum seekers safe.
“Expo New Mexico has a fantastic security force that’s always on the ground making sure everybody on the ground is safe and that their well-being is taken care of,” he said. “So it’s really not an issue that we’re concerned about at this time.”
He confirmed that an officer with the Albuquerque Police Department ultimately gave the order Wednesday for the two Republican contractors to leave the facility. The Albuquerque Police Department did not respond to TPM’s requests for comment on the incident.
This post has been updated.