Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan participates in an operational tour of USBP Tornillo Soft-Sided Facilty on Aug. 15, 2019. (DHS photo Tara A. Molle)

GAO: Millions Spent on Unnecessary Border Detention Facility

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report about a temporary facility in Texas has raised concerns about U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) use of resources.

The number of people CBP apprehended on the southwest border more than doubled to 850,000 from FY 2018 to 2019. To address this increase, CBP hired a contractor to put up a temporary facility in Tornillo, Texas, capable of holding 2,500 people. CBP paid the contractor $66 million to provide meals, guards, and other services for five months.

But GAO’s April 9 report notes that while this facility was open, it held no more than 68 detainees on any given day. GAO’s analysis of CBP data showed that, on average, there were 30 adults held in custody at the Tornillo facility per day. CBP therefore “spent $5.3 million on unnecessary food, and used significant personnel resources (contractors, CBP staff, and personnel from other agencies) in the facility”. The facility was closed on January 3, 2020.

In light of the low number of detainees held, and the significant costs and resources allocated to the facility, GAO identified concerns about the management and use of the facility. These concerns included the initial terms and conditions negotiated by CBP, which did not provide flexibility to adjust pricing when the number of detainees was less than expected, and the lack of input and information sharing among CBP components regarding the need for and use of the facility. 

Initially, CBP paid the contractor a fixed price for food services regardless of the number of detainees in the facility, per the terms of the delivery order. In November 2019, when exercising the first option to extend operations by two months, CBP moved to a tiered pricing approach, which reduced the cost of food services to better reflect the actual number of detainees. 

Specifically, during the first option period, CBP paid $74,207 for two months of detainee meals and snacks (with tiered pricing), whereas it paid $3.6 million for two months of detainee meals and snacks during the initial period of performance (without tiered pricing). 

In terms of staffing, CBP paid $6.7 million for 75 unarmed contract security guards to be on site at all times for the average daily population of 28 adults. In addition to these contract security guards, 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 employees from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and 116 Texas National Guard personnel were also on site.

GAO’s report states that had CBP negotiated tiered-pricing when initially placing the order, “CBP could have positioned itself to better handle varying levels of detainees in a more cost-effective manner”. Additionally, GAO found that the Border Patrol officials who operated the facility were not consulted prior and did not have input into its requirements. Once the facility was operational, gaps in communication between stakeholders about the numbers of detainees at the facility limited CBP’s ability to consider options to modify the order in a more timely fashion.

CBP officials told the GAO review that they decided to close the facility because of the low numbers of individuals detained and because a permanent holding facility would be opening nearby. Even though this particular facility has closed and the mismanagement of funds therefore rectified in this instance, it serves as a lesson learned to limit the chance of recurrence of previous failures or difficulties. 

Unsurprisingly, GAO has recommended that CBP conduct an assessment of the acquisition and use of the Tornillo facility to identify lessons learned. CBP concurred and is already using the Tornillo experiences to guide its efforts in a new soft-sided facility planned for Donna, Texas later this year. CBP expects to have made a full assessment of the Tornillo facility shortcomings by the end of September 2020.

It is worth noting that due to the unprecedented number of illegal border crossings at the time, CBP was acting on a day-by-day basis and was under pressure to manage the increase rapidly. The benefit of hindsight should provide CBP with an effective tool as it continues work on the new facility at Donna, and for future new facility contracts.

Read the full report at GAO

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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