Poor communication, planning led to massively underused border facility

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When its Mexico border apprehensions soared last year, Customs and Border Protection hired a contractor to build a temporary detention center. It could hold 2,500 detainees, but in reality, it never had more than a few dozen at a time. The Government Accountability Office found that didn’t stop the money from flowing before CBP dismantled the facility only a few months later. With a recap, the GAO’s Director of Homeland Security and Justice issues Rebecca Gambler joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Gambler, good to have you back.

Rebecca Gambler: Thank you for having me on the show, Tom.

Tom Temin: Well, this sounds like people who stocked up on 5,000 rolls of toilet paper and then got constipated. They built this thing. And I guess the big issue that you were looking at is not so much the money but perhaps the planning that went into this facility.

Rebecca Gambler: Yes, we did look at how CBP planned for and then also used the facility once it was built and established. And we did identify a number of concerns with how CBP both acquired and that facility.

Tom Temin: It sounds like they had good reason to think they might need a large facility to hold 2,500 people at a time because I think you report the detentions were approaching a million per annum at that period. So how did it come to be that almost nobody used the place?

Rebecca Gambler: CBP acquired the facility as you said, Tom, due to the large increases that they were experiencing and apprehensions along the southwest border. So in order to address some of the crowded and difficult conditions at their border facilities, CBP moved to acquire this soft sided temporary facility in a particular sector, the El Paso sector in Texas. They moved quickly to acquire the facility, but in doing so, they did not consider options for reducing or saving costs to the government, particularly as it relates to food services. In the report, we note that CBP paid for hundreds of thousands of meals, basically to operate the facility at full capacity when they only really needed around 13,000 meals. And so CBP ended up paying for many more meals than what they actually needed. And that was because they didn’t consider different flexibilities in their initial order for the facility that would allow them to modify the costs or the ordering for meals based on the actual capacity that they had in the facility. And as you noted, Tom, the facility was built for 2,500 single adults, and on any given day during the initial period of performance for the facility they didn’t have more than about 66 individuals in the facility.

Tom Temin: Sounds like they made a basic contracting flaw in that they didn’t contract to provide meals as required daily by the government. Sounds like they had a big giant guarantee maybe that they had to fulfill?

Rebecca Gambler: That’s right. The other concern that we had with how CBP acquired and use the facility had to do with information sharing among the different CBP officers and entities that were responsible for acquisition and use of the facility. The CBP contracting or acquisition officials told us that they didn’t become aware that the facility was operating at less than capacity until sometime in the fall. But even then, they didn’t modify the terms of the delivery order during the initial period of performance, which was from August through November, because Border Patrol had identified the continued need for the facility in case apprehensions increased. Now on a positive note CBP, when they exercise what’s referred to as another option on the delivery order, they did modify how they were acquiring food services to be more flexible and reduce costs. But they didn’t make that modification during the initial period of performance, which was concerning to us.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Rebecca Gambler. She’s director of Homeland Security and Justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. And I guess my other question would be, didn’t the contractor think to alert them? Hey, you know, we’re buying all this food on your behalf and charging you for it. And I guess the second part is where was all that food going?

Rebecca Gambler: The contracting officials we interviewed did tell us that what’s referred to as tiered pricing is a common approach that can be used when you’re not actually kind of certain what your needs are. And tiered pricing, in this case would refer to CBP paying for a tiered number of meals it needs each day rather than paying for all of the meals that are part of the terms of the order regardless of how many individuals are actually housed in the facility. It is important to note that CBP was paying for those meals. So it was really what we were looking at was the cost of the food services.

Tom Temin: I see, they were paying for what they need, they were just paying too much for it?

Rebecca Gambler: That’s right.

Tom Temin: All right. So what were your recommendations, then? It’s kind of moot at this point, because they have closed that facility down or dismantled it, I guess, and they’re done with the contract?

Rebecca Gambler: That’s right. They did close the facility in January of 2020. But ultimately, CBP paid millions of dollars for food services they didn’t need and they also allocated personnel resources to the facility. And those resources could have been allocated to other missions. And our recommendation from this work was that CBP should conduct an assessment of the acquisition and use of this facility and identify lessons learned so that they can apply those to future CBP acquisitions. I would note that CBP did agree with this recommendation and said they would be conducting such an assessment.

Tom Temin: It kind of makes you wonder with all of these other – I think some of them are federal efforts to build these field hospitals that are being so far underutilized compared to the number of beds in them, whether there’s lessons learned that could really apply right now.

Rebecca Gambler: Certainly, we think it’s important, at least for CBP, to look at what lessons they can learn from what occurred here with this particular soft sided facility. And more broadly, there are acquisition best practices that exists that can help guide agencies as they move to make quick acquisitions to address urgent and emerging needs. And those best practices are laid out in other GAO reports as well.

Tom Temin: Sure, and did CBP sheepishly go along with your recommendations?

Rebecca Gambler: CBP did concur with our recommendation and said that they do plan to conduct an assessment and identify lessons learned as it relates to their experience with this facility.

Tom Temin: Sheepish was my word, I guess it’s not something that GAO would say they did.

Rebecca Gambler: They did concur with the recommendation and identified an estimated completion date of the fall.

Tom Temin: All right. Rebecca Gambler is director of Homeland Security and Justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. As always, thanks so much.

Rebecca Gambler: Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on demand. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone. Stay up to date on your agency’s latest responses to coronavirus visit our special resource page at www.FederalNewsNetwork.com.

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