EL PASO, Texas — U.S. Customs and Border Protection needlessly spent about $12 million last year to guard, house and feed as many as 2,500 people in a private detention center in Texas that never held more than 68 detainees on any given day, according to a report from a congressional watchdog.

Over five months, Customs and Border Protection paid $5.3 million for 650,000 meals that were never ordered, according to the Government Accountability Office report released Thursday.

The report says the agency also spent $6.7 million on unnecessary private security guards for the facility. Between August and November, each detainee was guarded by an average of eight officials — or one immigration officer, three contracted guards and four members of the Texas National Guard.

“CBP ultimately paid millions of dollars for food service it did not need and allocated personnel resources to the facility that, as Border Patrol El Paso sector officials noted to us, could have been allocated to other missions,” the report read.

Immigration officials decided to build the Tornillo, Texas, facility in May when illegal crossings were up 140 percent over the previous year and administration officials were clamping down on granting bond to asylum seekers. At the time, thousands of migrants were languishing indefinitely in cells meant to hold them for only a few days across the El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes southern New Mexico and West Texas. However, by the time the facility opened in August, border crossings were down.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Customs and Border Protection, defended the spending in a letter to GAO.

“In the leadership’s view, it would have been worse to close facilities, such as the one in Tornillo, Texas, too early and be forced to hold detainees in locations not suited to that purpose, than it was to take the risk that CBP would have a level of overcapacity for some time,” Homeland Security spokesman Jim Crumpacker wrote in the response included in the report.

A CBP spokesman in El Paso declined to comment further.

The contractor responsible for meals and most other aspects of the project, Deployed Resources LLC from Rome, New York, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

CBP closed the detention center in January.

The adult facility was separate from a camp for migrant teens that opened in Tornillo, Texas, in June 2018. That camp was shut down in January 2019 after an outcry from politicians and advocates about conditions for more than 2,000 teens being held there.

Money spent at the adult facility was part of a borderwide, $4.6 billion aid package. GAO produced the report at the request of a group of Democratic senators.

It’s the first project funded by the legislation to get a critical report from GAO. The agency says it is also investigating other immigration detention spending.

Citing an obscure public health law in the context of COVID-19, the new coronavirus, the Border Patrol is screening migrants it apprehends and detaining them only if they have serious criminal records in the U.S. Agents in El Paso say they are sending all immigrants to Mexico, including those seeking protection from persecution or torture, except for citizens of certain countries outside Central America such as Brazil.

Associated Press writer Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, California, contributed to this report.

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