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Expo NM will open dorms to asylum-seekers

Expo New Mexico will open its dormitories to host asylum-seeking immigrants passing through Albuquerque. The dorms are typically used only during the State Fair. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Expo New Mexico will open its dormitories to host asylum-seeking immigrants passing through Albuquerque. The dorms are typically used only during the State Fair. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called Dan Mourning seeking help sheltering asylum-seeking immigrants passing through the state, the Expo New Mexico general manager conducted a brief mental assessment of his operation.

Was it ready, he wondered.

It was ultimately an easy answer, he said.

Dan Mourning, General Manager of the New Mexico State Fair in the courtyard area of the dorms on the State Fair grounds.  Tuesday, April. 30,  2019. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Dan Mourning, Expo New Mexico general manager, sits in the courtyard area of the dorms on the State Fair grounds Tuesday, April. 30, 2019. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“It didn’t take 30 seconds for me to go, ‘This is what we’re here for,’ ” Mourning said.

Expo New Mexico is now prepared to house up to 60 immigrants at a time on its 236-acre property in central Albuquerque; it could extend capacity to 240 by this summer.

The families will stay in dormitories typically used only during the State Fair by children showing their livestock in neighboring barns. Mourning called the costs to Expo New Mexico “minimal” – mostly staff time spent cleaning and readying the space.

“This is a humanitarian crisis; we understand that, and we’re available,” Mourning said Tuesday as employees washed windows and mopped floors in the 1940s-era buildings where the families will stay. “We want to do our part.”

An estimated 2,000 asylum-seekers have come through Albuquerque in recent months, staying a few days before moving along to meet their sponsors or families in other parts of the country. Several faith-based and community groups have served as hosts, assembling enough volunteer manpower and donations to shelter, feed and clothe them during their short stays.

Albuquerque Interfaith has so far welcomed 11 busloads of 50 people apiece. Supporting a single busload for two to three days runs about $3,000 in donated cash, according to Carla Lanting Shibuya, a site coordinator with the nonprofit organization. Several restaurants and other entities have supplemented the grass-roots effort by giving food and other goods, she said.

But Expo New Mexico’s involvement should provide some financial relief to the hosting groups, which in some cases have been renting hotel rooms for immigrant families.

The accommodations are Spartan – each dorm has 30 small metal beds – but Lanting Shibuya said that the dorms have potential and that volunteers would make them feel hospitable.

She said she’s grateful that a public venue is opening for this purpose, calling it another example of the community’s multifaceted response to the situation.

“Really, we’re trying to figure out how we can make this (assistance operation) sustainable, and the amount of … collaboration on so many different levels has been a really good thing to see,” she said. “It can be done.”

Mourning agreed, saying that he is working closely with the city of Albuquerque’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs and that Lujan Grisham’s office has told him to reach out if he needs assistance.

Expo New Mexico is a $12 million-a-year operation funded by its own revenue. Mourning said opening the dorms to immigrants would have almost no financial impact because the associated facility updates and cleaning would have happened at some point before the State Fair opens in September.

Expo has in the past opened its doors in emergency situations, such as welcoming families and their animals displaced by forest fires.

“That’s what Expo New Mexico does; it’s not just entertainment, corn dogs and concerts,” Mourning said. “We serve a purpose here for the community.”

Expo staff will not operate the shelter facility; the host community groups will handle all on-site operations such as laundry and cooking in the available commercial kitchen.

Mourning said the space could be available “indefinitely,” except before and during the State Fair in August and September. Meanwhile, all events scheduled for the fairgrounds will be held as planned.

In a statement Tuesday, Gov. Lujan Grisham lauded the work across New Mexico to aid immigrants and said the state will continue to explore “other means of response” in addition to opening Expo New Mexico.

“These asylum-seekers are primarily women and children and are not a danger to us; they need rest, hydration and minor medical checkups before they resume their journeys,” she said. “I’m proud of the courageous nonprofit network that has done such incredible work on the border and in Albuquerque.”

The city will not bear any expense associated with running the dorm shelter, a spokeswoman said, though its Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will serve as a liaison between Expo and the community group hosts.

Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement that Albuquerque residents have “come together where the federal government has failed, to make sure the asylum seekers traveling legally through our community have the basic needs of human dignity met.”

The city of Albuquerque has not dedicated financial resources to supporting asylum-seekers, though City Councilor Pat Davis has proposed a $250,000 appropriation to aid the effort. He aims to get his resolution on next week’s City Council agenda.

Residents who want to help with the effort to help asylum-seekers can visit the city’s website at www.cabq.gov/office-of-equity-inclusion and click on the Immigrant & Refugee Affairs link on the left side of the page.

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