Trump administration spent millions on border detention that wasn't needed, GAO says

On average there were 28 adults held in custody in a facility built to hold 2,500.
Image: Tornillo
Migrants are detained in a tented, air-conditioned cage at a Border Patrol detention facility in Tornillo, Texas, on Aug. 15, 2019.Cedar Attanasio / AP

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By Suzanne Gamboa

The Trump administration spent millions on food and personnel it didn't need because fewer immigrants than expected were held at a Tornillo, Texas, facility that officials rushed to build last year, the Government Accountability Office reported.

The $66 million facility, paid for with emergency supplemental funding approved by Congress last year, was designed for a capacity of 2,500 single adults, the GAO report released Thursday states.

But after it opened, the facility held no more than 66 people on any given day during the initial contract period of Aug. 4, 2019, and Nov. 3, 2019. On average there were 28 adults held in custody, about 1 percent of daily capacity, during the first three months it was open, GAO said.

Before the facility opened, the El Paso Border Patrol sector had seen a significant increase in apprehensions, rising from 14,000 individuals in fiscal year 2018 to over 33,000 in fiscal year 2019, according to data from Customs and Border Protection.

The agency spent $5.3 million for preparation of meals and snacks that it did not need in the initial contract period.

The agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, paid for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the full capacity of the facility, regardless of its daily population, the GAO said. That amounted to 675,000 meals paid for, but only 13,428 ordered.

Also, during those months, CBP paid $6.7 million for 75 unarmed contract security guards on site at all times for the average daily population of 28 adults.

Border Patrol agents walk toward the male wing of a new adult detention facility in Tornillo, Texas, on Aug. 15, 2019.Cedar Attanasio / AP file

In addition, 21 CBP law enforcement officers were on hand, including 11 Border Patrol agents from the El Paso sector and northern border sector and 10 CBP officers from the Office of Field Operations. Five people from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and 116 Texas National Guard personnel were also at the site for various jobs.

The GAO calculated that on average, for each detainee held at the facility in the initial months, there were four Texas National Guard personnel, three contracted security guards and one CBP law enforcement officer. The facility closed in January.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement: “This is a prime example of a total waste of taxpayer money. After it rushed to push the president’s anti-immigrant agenda, the administration was too late to respond to the rising number of immigrants in CBP custody last year."

The Texas Tribune reported on the findings Thursday.

CBP officials told GAO that they were on an aggressive contracting schedule, and at the time did not consider including cost-saving options in the event that the detainee population was less than expected.

Border Patrol officials told GAO they were not consulted regarding population or capacity needs. They said they first learned of the plan for the detention facility in July 2019, when the overcrowding problem for single adults was largely resolved.

The GAO stated it got conflicting statements from agency departments and headquarters and the El Paso sector on when it was known that the facility was operating at far less than capacity and whether requests were made to adjust the contract.

DHS told the GAO it continued to operate at capacity because of the uncertainty at the time about detention needs.

“CBP did not have the benefit of hindsight,” a February letter signed by DHS official Jim Crumpacker states in response to the GAO findings. “It would have been worse to close facilities, such as the one in Tornillo, Texas …” DHS agreed to review the Tornillo contracting and apply “lessons learned” to future acquisitions.

The agency said it would apply the lessons to the contract for a Donna, Texas, facility that is planned to be completed Sept. 30.

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