Immigration officials bought dirt bikes and boats instead of food and medicine, report says

Cindy Carcamo
Three-year-old Angie Garcia, originally from El Salvador, washes her hands in a bucket before eating lunch at a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico.  (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection broke the law by misusing money meant for medical care and food for those in immigration detention, a government watchdog says. Instead, the agency spent the funds on dirt bikes, dog food and leashes, boats and other unrelated items, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday.

The discovery was made during an audit of Customs and Border Protection treatment of adults and children in immigration custody last year during a significant increase in the number of migrant families and children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Many were detained in crowded Customs and Border Protection facilities, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Several children died in federal custody, most falling ill in the temporary holding areas.

In response, Congress advanced the agency $4.6 billion, a large proportion of it intended for the care of children and families on the southern border.

Migrants wash their clothes in a facility at the Matamoros refugee camp.  (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Within the bill, Congress provided several line-item appropriations, including an estimated $112 million specifically for "consumables and medical care" for adults and children in custody and $708 million for "establishing and operating migrant care and processing facilities."

Customs and Border Protection officials spent some of the $112 million on items that did not qualify, the GAO report said. The agency spent it on "CBP’s canine program; the CBP-wide vaccine program for CBP personnel; computer network upgrades; transportation-related items such as boats, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and dirt bikes; and building equipment and services such as HVAC upgrades, sewer system upgrades, and janitorial services," the report stated.

Customs and Border Protection is working to itemize all the expenses in question and correct the accounts, agency spokesman Jim Burns said in a statement.

"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 statement said.

Customs and Border Protection did not provide an explanation as to how many of these items relate to the "consumables and medical care" line-item appropriation, the report stated.

"Therefore, we conclude that CBP violated the purpose statute when it obligated the consumables and medical care line item appropriation for these purposes and should adjust its accounts," according to the report.

Congressional Democrats immediately pounced on the report.

"Instead of helping migrants and improving conditions on the ground, CBP then broke the law by spending this taxpayer money on things that were not authorized — such as ATVs, dirt bikes and computer systems," Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. "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."