Watchdog: Agency misspent money meant for migrant care

FILE - In this Oct. 29, 2019, file photo, Customs and Border Protection officers gather at the border fence during a press conference in El Paso, Texas. A new report by a federal watchdog says the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency misspent millions of dollars meant for migrant care during the 2019 surge in border crossings. The report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office was released Thursday, June 11, 2020. (Mark Lambie/The El Paso Times via AP)
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U.S. Customs and Border Protection violated the law when it misspent money appropriated for migrant care on items like all-terrain vehicles, boats and its police dog program, according to a federal investigation.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report released Thursday that CBP misspent some of the $112 million it was allocated for “consumables and medical care” on an emergency basis during a large increase in illegal border crossings in 2019. In a statement to The Associated Press, CBP said it fully cooperated with GAO throughout its inquiry. It said the agency charged a small subset of expenses in fiscal year 2019 to the incorrect account.

“We are working to itemize all such expenses, and correct our accounts as recommend by the GAO. We emphasize that, and GAO’s opinion does not suggest otherwise, all of CBP’s obligations were for lawful objects related to agency operations and the care of those in our custody; the violations identified are technical in nature and prompt remedial action will be taken,” the agency wrote.

The spring and summer of 2019 saw an extraordinary jump in border crossings. In May, the Border Patrol apprehended nearly 133,000 people at the southern border. The numbers started to decrease after that, but by the end of the government’s fiscal year on Sept. 30, the agency had apprehended 851,508 people.

Reports of poor medical care and abuse were rampant. Several children and adults died in Border Patrol custody that fiscal year, including a 16-year-old boy who died of the flu in his Texas holding cell without anyone noticing for several hours.

In response to the uptick in arrivals, Congress allocated CBP an extra $708 million for “establishing and operating migrant care and processing facilities” and $112 million for “consumable and medical care.”

Some of the money meant for medical care and consumables— things such as hygiene products and baby items— was instead spent on the canine program, all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes, computer upgrades, janitorial services and boats, among others, according to the report.

U.S. Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, criticized the agency, saying it broke the law.

“This callous disregard for the law is yet another example of this administration’s continuing failure to carry out its duty to provide humane conditions and medical care for migrants in its care,” he said in a written statement.