The US border patrol is fast-tracking a $50 million job due to the shutdown

The government shutdown makes competitive bids impossible, CBP says.
The government shutdown makes competitive bids impossible, CBP says.
Image: EPA/Andy Rain
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US Customs and Border Protection, the 60,000-strong force that polices America’s borders, will award a $50 million contract to a British private security firm without first shopping around for a better price, as would normally be done.

The reasons, according to the agency: the government shutdown and immigrant caravans.

This week, CBP said in a government filing it plans to give G4S, which is headquartered in the UK, a six-month contract starting March 4 for security guards, medical services, and transportation at the border. The filing explains that although there are several large companies that could perform those services, G4S is the only vendor that can meet its deadline.

The US government shutdown is currently in its 34th day, and in addition to 800,000 Americans going without paychecks, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of government contracts need to be renewed for everything from border security to website maintenance. The Senate voted today (Jan. 24) on two plans to reopen the government. Only one included the $5.7 billion in border wall funding that Donald Trump has demanded in order to sign it. Both of them failed.

As the shutdown continues, meanwhile, law enforcement and FBI officials warn that it is harming their ability to keep Americans safe. CBP’s latest plan suggests it may be costing taxpayers money too.

Trump’s crisis declaration

Federal government contracts like this are normally open to multiple bidders. CBP is bypassing that process by using a special contract designation, “unusual and compelling urgency,” known in government contracting parlance as a FAR 6-302.

That designation speeds up the process to fulfill a government contract, which can often stretch for months, explains Jennifer Schaus, who runs a Washington DC consultancy for federal contractors. “You wouldn’t go shopping around for the best Band-Aid,” if you were trying to save someone’s life, Schaus told Quartz. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a lot of procurements were made in the same fashion, she noted.

CBP said in its government filing that in order to continue providing essential services at the border, it needs to renew its existing contract with G4S, instead of looking for new vendors. As justification, the agency cited the shutdown, as well as the large groups of Central American immigrants requesting asylum at the southern border, a situation Trump has called a national emergency.

Here’s how CBP put it:

“Due to the Government shutdown and migrant caravan situation on the southwest border, G4S is the only vendor that can provide these transportation and transportation guard services beginning on March 4, 2019.”

Because of Trump’s insistence that there’s a border crisis, CBP can check the box that allows it to avoid the lengthy competitive bidding process, said Schaus.

CBP didn’t respond to questions about the contract. Immigration levels are at historical lows. Many members of earlier caravans of asylum-seekers have stayed on the Mexican side of the border, waiting for a chance to make their asylum request at a legal port of entry. 

While border security contracts can be handled quickly, because they qualify for emergency status, contracting in many other agencies is “pretty much on hold,” Schaus said. As the shutdown progresses, government functions that Trump doesn’t like, from public commenting on National Park websites to environmental inspections of factories, are being disproportionately hit, Bloomberg reports.

Outsourced border security

G4S PLC, headquartered in London, is one of the world’s largest private security companies, and claims over 600,000 employees in more than 100 countries. It has long been a US government contractor, and the parent company and its divisions won nearly $500 million in contracts in 2018:

While much of the US border debate has centered around Trump’s wall funding demands, the Department of Homeland Security is already spending billions a year in the area, much of it on outsourced infrastructure and manpower supplied by companies like G4S and Geo Group, a private prison contractor.

G4S has had what the BBC described as a “chequered history dogged by controversies and accusations of malpractice and mismanagement.” Staff members at the Brook House Immigration Removal Centre, a G4S-operated private detention facility near London’s Gatwick Airport, have been accused of mistreating detainees; 10 were suspended in 2017 after being filmed “mocking, abusing, and assaulting” people being held there.

In 2012, G4S was widely panned for providing subpar security guards at the London Olympics, with retired police officers hastily pressed into service to maintain order. “There were people who couldn’t spell their own name,” said one ex-cop hired to work the games. The company also came under scrutiny after one of its security guards, Omar Mateen, killed 49 people in a bar in Orlando, Florida in 2016. John Kenning, the G4S regional CEO for North America, said Mateen was “not on duty at the time of the incident.”