Did U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) overspend on a temporary detention center outside El Paso? The Government Accountability Office (GAO) thinks so.
A GAO investigation found that the Tornillo facility designed to house 2,500 adult detainees held no more than 68 at any given time. It averaged just 38 per day, during barely six months of operation in the latter half of 2019.
Adding up expenditures at the $66 million facility, the GAO report said CBP “spent $5.3 million on unnecessary food,” and vastly overstaffed Tornillo.
CBP paid $6.7 million for 75 unarmed contract security guards to be on site at all times, plus 21 CBP law enforcement officers and five employees from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In addition, 116 Texas National Guard personnel were also on site.
Border Patrol officials in the El Paso sector reported that while there was a shortage of detention space for single adults in May and June 2019, crowding problems were largely resolved by July, when the Tornillo facility was ordered.
Hindsight is always 20/20, of course. And accurate predictions about the ebbs and flows of illegal border crossers are nigh on impossible. Still, it is troubling to hear local officers say they were not consulted about the project until it was announced.
In their defense, CBP officials in Washington, D.C., said they maintained robust staffing levels because of earlier border surges. They noted that if Migrant Protection Protocols were halted because of litigation or lack of cooperation by the Mexican government, more capacity would be needed quickly.
Though CBP eventually scaled back some of its spending on Tornillo, GAO dinged the agency for paying “millions of dollars for food service it did not need and allocat[ing]personnel resources that, as Border Patrol El Paso sector officials noted, could have been allocated to other missions.”
GAO could have gone one step further by asking the parent agency overseeing all this: Why didn’t the Department of Homeland Security turn Tornillo over to ICE, if CBP couldn’t fill the beds? Alas that line of inquiry didn’t come up in GAO’s 15-page report.
As it closed Tornillo on Jan. 3, CBP said it had learned lessons there, and pledged to do better. Let’s hope so. Any way you figure it, bilking U.S. taxpayers and squandering border-enforcement resources is a double debacle.