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Government watchdog: Millions wasted on Tornillo migrant detention facility

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The Tornillo detention facility on Sept. 12, 2018. Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

EL PASO — The federal government wasted millions in taxpayer dollars on food, supplies and personnel during a brief reopening of a West Texas immigration detention facility last year, a government watchdog reported Thursday.

The findings from the Government Accountability Office focus on expenditures from August to December to operate the tent encampment at Tornillo, a rural community in eastern El Paso County. The facility was reopened to hold single adults amid a spike in apprehensions of undocumented immigrants at the Texas-Mexico border. It was previously used in 2018 to detain undocumented immigrant children.

Over those five months, the federal government spent about $66 million to operate the facility, which was built to hold as many as 2,500 detainees. But it never held more than 70 people and the average daily population for the first three months was 28 people, according to the report.

That comes out to a cost of about $431,000 per day.

During the initial three-month contract — which was later extended for two more months — the GAO found that U.S. Customs and Border Protection spent $5.3 million on food, food delivery and other supplies, enough for 2,500 detainees per day — but averaged just 1 percent of capacity. The government adjusted food deliveries and reduced those costs during the two-month extension.

The government spent an additional $6.7 million on 75 unarmed guards to monitor the facility 24 hours a day, and agents from Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and National Guard soldiers also were temporarily reassigned to Tornillo. The GAO concluded that with an average daily population of 28 detainees, each detainee was being guarded by four soldiers, three security guards and one CBP officer.

The National Guard soldiers were reassigned in mid-November.

The Tornillo facility was re-opened to hold adult migrants after Border Patrol stations in Texas reached or exceeded their capacity last year during a surge of border crossings, mostly by Central Americans seeking asylum. Agents said repeatedly that Border Patrol holding stations were not built to house people for long periods of time and they would need additional facilities if the surge continued.

In its response to the GAO findings, the Trump administration said it didn’t have the luxury of hindsight, as did the GAO, when it was operating the facility and it couldn’t predict what effect other border security measures would have on overall crossings.

“In leadership's view, it would have been worse to close facilities such as the one in Tornillo, Texas, too early and be forced again to hold detainees in locations not suited to that purpose than it was to take the risk that CBP would have a level of overcapacity for some time,” Jim H. Crumpacker, director of the GAO's Office of Inspector General Liaison Office, wrote to the GAO.

The GAO report also states that local Border Patrol office tried to alert their superiors that Tornillo was an unnecessary use of resources.

“Border Patrol officials in the El Paso sector told us that the sector recommended to Border Patrol headquarters that the facility be closed and resources reallocated elsewhere for other CBP missions, due to the consistently low numbers of individuals held at the facility and the personnel resource requirements to operate the facility,” the report states.

“In contrast, CBP headquarters officials told us, despite the consistently low numbers of detainees held in the Tornillo facility, they decided to continue operations for the 2,500-person facility because they were operating in an environment with considerable uncertainty related to migrant flow and wanted to prepare for the possibility of increased apprehensions,” the report says.