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Border officials spent emergency humanitarian funds on dirt bikes, dogs and enforcement programs, according to government report

Customs and Border Protection officers gather at the border fence during a news conference in El Paso on Oct. 29, 2019. (Mark Lambie/AP)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection used emergency funding meant for migrant families and children to pay for dirt bikes, canine supplies, computer equipment and other enforcement related-expenditures, according to a report published Thursday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Congress last June approved a $4.6 billion emergency funding bill to cope with an unprecedented influx of Central American families and children at the U.S.-Mexico border that left U.S. agents overwhelmed and detention cells dangerously crowded.

The supplemental bill included a line item for about $112 million in “consumables and medical care,” but CBP used some of the money to pay for enforcement-related hardware and expenses that were not authorized, according to the GAO, the federal government’s leading oversight agency.

CBP spent some of the funds on motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, boats and other transportation equipment, as well as supplies and services for CBP’s canine program, vaccines for CBP personnel, computer upgrades, printers and security camera systems and other expenses, the report found.

The GAO report did not indicate how much money was misused, but it said the expenditures were a violation of the law.

“CBP did not provide any explanation as to how these items relate to the consumables and medical care line item appropriation,” the report states. “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.”

The crisis at the southern border reached a peak in the weeks before the supplemental was passed, when CBP detained and processed more than 144,000 unauthorized migrants in May 2019. The majority were family groups from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and in most cases they were issued an appointment to appear in immigration court and released into the interior of the United States.

Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in CBP border stations grew dire, and the deaths of seven children in less than one year put additional pressure on lawmakers to provide the border agency with the emergency funds it was seeking. Once the bill was passed, conditions at the border rapidly improved, as border officials set up spacious temporary facilities with air conditioning, toys and games for children and ample food and medical supplies.

Some lawmakers who voted against the emergency funding, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N. Y), argued at the time that the Trump administration would redirect the money to enforcement. Democrats were divided, but the bill passed both the Senate and House by a wide margin.

“Congress provided this additional funding for the primary purpose of improving conditions for migrants at the border and ensuring migrants were receiving adequate health care after the deaths of multiple children in custody,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement Thursday. “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.

CBP said in a statement Thursday that the report is “a legal opinion,” rather than the result of a formal audit, and the agency said the violations identified by the GAO were “technical in nature.”

“As the opinion notes, CBP charged a small subset of expenses in fiscal year 2019 to the incorrect account,” the statement read. “We are working to itemize all such expenses, and correct our accounts as recommend by the GAO.”

The agency assured that “prompt remedial action will be taken.”

Andrew Meehan, a former Homeland Security official who was the spokesman for CBP during the crisis, said Border Patrol chiefs in the busiest sectors were under major financial strain and were hard-pressed to find money before the emergency funding package was passed last June.

“The sector chiefs were having to spend money on shower trailers, tens of thousands of consumables each day, and medical supplies that were well outside their resources,” Meehan said.

When flu season hit in the winter of 2018-2019, border agents were taking more than 60 trips to the hospital per day, he said.

The GAO said it could not provide more details about the amount of humanitarian funding CBP used to pay for nonauthorized items and expenses, but the oversight agency said it has not finished its probe.

Chuck Young, a GAO spokesman, said the agency is preparing a separate audit report “looking at the extent to which CBP obligated and conducted oversight to funds from the emergency supplemental.”

Young said the GAO intends to issue a public version of the report, “but we have to work through the concerns about the information that DHS has raised.”

During the 2019 fiscal year, U.S. border authorities detained nearly 1 million unauthorized migrants, the highest total in more than a decade. The number of border-crossers taken into custody has dropped more than 70 percent since then, the result of a wide-ranging crackdown by U.S. and Mexican authorities.

Migration has fallen in the past two months to among the lowest levels on record, as the Trump administration has cited the coronavirus pandemic to suspend normal immigration proceedings and summarily “expel” migrants — including minors and asylum seekers — under the auspices of the public health emergency.