Customs and Border Protection Paid $66 Million for Temporary Detainment Center That Was 99% Empty

Terence P. Jeffrey | April 15, 2020 | 5:47pm EDT
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This is an aerial view of CBP temporary adult detainment facility at Tornillo, Texas, that opened in August and closed in January. (Screen Capture)
This is an aerial view of CBP temporary adult detainment facility at Tornillo, Texas, that opened in August and closed in January. (Screen Capture)

( - U.S. Customs and Border Protection spent $66 million to build and operate a temporary detainment center in Tornillo, Texas—that opened last August and closed this January—where it kept, on average, 1 percent of the facility's capacity in detainees, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In other words, the $66-million facility that operated for approximately five months was generally 99-percent empty.

“During the 5-month period the Tornillo facility was open, the CBP paid approximately $66 million in total for the facility services and leveraged significant federal personnel resources (both CBP and otherwise), despite holding an average of 30 detainees per day—or about 1 percent of the facility's capacity,” says a report that the GAO provided to members of Congress.

This is Figure 2 from the GAO's report on the CBP's temporary detainment facility in Tornillo, Texas)
This is Figure 2 from the GAO's report on the CBP's temporary detainment facility in Tornillo, Texas)

CBP contracted for the temporary facility to be constructed and operated as the nation was seeing a massive surge in illegal immigrants being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Apprehensions by the U.S. Border Patrol,” said the GAO report, “increased from nearly 400,000 individuals in fiscal year 2018 to over 850,000 in fiscal year 2019, an increase of 115 percent, according to CBP data. The increase in individuals apprehended resulted in overcrowded and difficult humanitarian conditions in CBP short-term processing and holding facilities.”

In the face of this surge, the CBP contracted in July 2019 to build a temporary detainment center in Tornillo, Texas, that would be capable of holding 2,500 adults. The CBP paid for the facility with money from a $1-billon emergency supplemental appropriation that Congress passed to deal with the surge in border apprehensions.

“On July 3, 2019, CBP placed a sole-source, firm-fixed price delivery order with a 3-month initial period of performance and five 2-month options for building, operating, and maintaining a temporary, soft-sided facility in Tornillo, Texas, with a capacity to hold 2,500 single adult detainees,” said the GAO report.

“Soft-sided facilities,” the GAO explained, “are tent-like structures, which include services and equipment to hold individuals in those facilities, such as heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, electrical, and lightning protection.”

The “soft-sided” temporary facility in Tornillo that the Border Patrol paid a contractor to build and operate was not inexpensive.

“The price for the initial 3-month period of performance (August 4, 2019 through November 3, 2019) was approximately 47 million, with each option priced at approximately $19 million,” said GAO.

The contractor would not only build this “soft-sided” facility but also operate it and provide guard services for it.

“Under the order, the contractor was responsible for the physical construction of the facility, including areas for intake and holding of detained individuals, property storage, and medical evaluations, among other things,” said GAO.

“The contractor was also responsible for providing services to support the intake, processing, and temporary holding of detained individuals, such as meal service, guard services, toilets and showers,” said GAO.

The facility was open for less than five months.

“The facility in Tornillo opened and began holding single adults on August 13, 2019,” said GAO. “CBP exercised the first option to extend operations at the facility on November 4, 2019 and declined to exercise the second option, resulting in the closure of the facility on January 3, 2020.”

The GAO concluded that: “CBP detained far fewer individuals in its facility in Tornillo, Texas than the facility’s capacity and spent millions of dollars for food services not needed.”

The number of meals the Border Patrol actually used at the largely empty detainment center was far less than the number for which it paid.

“Based on our analysis, CBP paid approximately $5.3 million for meals it did not need during the initial period of performance,” said the GAO. “Specifically, according to CBP officials, per the terms of the order, CBP paid for food service (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) for the full capacity of the Tornillo facility (2,500 detainees), regardless of the daily population on-site.

“As such,” said GAO, “CBP paid for about 675,000 meals during the initial period of performance despite only ordering 13,428 meals.”

CBP also paid to have 75 “unarmed contract security guards on-site” at the detainment facility “at all times”—even though the facility “had an approximate average daily population of 28” adult detainees.”

“Based on our analysis, CBP paid approximately $6.7 million for 75 unarmed contract security guards on-site at the Tornillo facility at all times to report any situations with individuals held in the facility and provide facility and perimeter security, though the facility had an approximate average daily population of 28 adults,” said the GAO report.

Typically, according to the GAO, there were approximately 8 government personnel and contractors at this temporary facility for each of the detainees held there during the first operational period from August to December.

(This is Figure 3 from the GAO's report on the CBP's temporary detainment facility in Tornillo, Texas.)
(This is Figure 3 from the GAO's report on the CBP's temporary detainment facility in Tornillo, Texas.)

“To determine the average personnel per detainee,” said the GAO, “we divided the general number of personnel CBP cited per shift (21 CBP law enforcement officers, 116 National Guard personnel and 75 contracted guards) by the average number of adults held in custody at the Tornillo facility per day using the Border Patrol’s data (28 detainees), resulting in about one CBP law enforcement officer, four National Guard personnel, and three contracted security guards for each individual on average.”

The largest number of detainees this 2,500-capacity facility ever held on one day was 68 adults. Last November, the Border Patrol decided to close the facility in January after only five months of operation.

“CBP officials told us that in November 2019 the agency decided not to exercise another option on the delivery order for the Tornillo facility and, as of January 3, 2020, the facility has been closed,” said the GAO report.

“CBP officials stated,” said the report, “they did not exercise another option because of the low numbers of individuals detained (an average of 30 adults per day, and no more than 68 adults on an given day during the 5-month period the Tornillo facility was open) and because a permanent holding facility would be opening in the El Paso sector in 2020.”

The director of the Department of Homeland Security’s GAO-OIG Liaison Office sent a letter to the GAO responding to GAO’s report on this facility.

“In October 2018, CBP faced unprecedented numbers of migrants attempting to cross into the United States, having, on average, apprehended each day, more than 1,950 persons crossing the border illegally or presenting themselves without documents at ports of entry,” said the letter.

“This number grew to more than 4,600 each day in May 2019,” the letter said.

“The increase in individuals apprehended resulted in overcrowded conditions in CBP short-term processing and holding facilities, which presented migrant health and welfare challenges,” it said.

“After the Tornillo facility opened in August 2019, the number of detainees fell below what had been projected, and CBP modified the delivery order to reduce costs,” said the letter. “The facility was eventually closed in January 2020.”

“With the benefit of hindsight,” the letter said, “GAO’s draft report questions the adequacy of CBP’s acquisition and oversight approach, based primarily on conclusions that the government paid for more capacity than was needed, for a longer period than was necessary.

“It is important to note,” said the DHS letter, “that CBP did not have the benefit of hindsight as it made day-to-day decisions based on assessments of the risks involved with various solutions.”

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