June 25 (UPI) -- Acting U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan on Thursday defended an emergency order to quickly expel migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border during the coronavirus pandemic.
Testifying during a Senate oversight hearing to examine immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, Morgan said the controversial order -- first issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March and since extended indefinitely -- is vital for the health of migrants already being held in detention.
"The CDC has determined that without the order, CBP would have to hold large numbers of migrants in close proximity to each other in congregate, often enclosed areas for the duration of immigration processing," he said.
"That situation would dramatically increase the risk of an outbreak inside CBP facilities that could spread into local communities via the healthcare system or from CBP personnel, who live and work in border communities."
CBP reported it carried out nearly 42,000 expulsions under the CDC order during March, April and May, including more than 2,000 unaccompanied minors.
The number of migrants arrested at the border, however, has decreased dramatically since an unprecedented surge that saw 133,000 migrants arrested in May 2019.
Critics accuse the Trump administration of using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to violate U.S. and international law by establishing what is essentially a two-track process in which some migrants claiming asylum are turned away at the border by citing health concerns while others are allowed to be processed.
While many committee members praised CBP's response in following CDC guidelines to limit immigration to the U.S. amid the pandemic, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Margaret Hassan, D-N.H., pressed Morgan on agents' involvement in police brutality protests and allegations of misspending.
The hearing came exactly two weeks after a Government Accountability Office report revealed CBP misspent part of a 2019 emergency funding bill reserved for migrant care.
According to a June 11 audit from the GAO, CBP spent an unspecified amount of Congress' nearly $4.6 billion emergency appropriations bill on items such as dirt bikes, boats, a CBP-wide vaccine program for personnel and computer network updates.
The bill, also known as the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Humanitarian Assistance and Security at the Southern Border Act, allocated funds to CBP and other government agencies to cover expenses related to the growing number of Central American migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border last year.
According to the GAO audit, CBP's misspending came from a $112 million portion of the bill that was allocated specifically for "consumables and medical care."
Hassan asked Morgan how much CBP misspent on equipment, but did not provide a definite answer and said that confusion over some of CBP's spending is a result of "technical errors."
Morgan said the GAO is questioning $60 million of the designated funds.
"About half of that, we believe, were due to some technical errors ... $30 million is really what is left that we think is in question," Morgan said.
Morgan said he does not agree that the money was "misspent" and the $30 million in question requires further analysis.
"We believe that there was no violation to the Antideficiency Act, meaning we believe all the charges appear to be valid CBP-operating expenses, we just may have put them in the wrong buckets," he said.
The Antideficiency Act prohibits federal agencies from obligating or spending federal funds that are in excess of the amounts or purposes approved by Congress.
Harris also pressed Morgan on why she hadn't received a response from CBP on several questions she had posed to the agency related to its deployment of personnel to recent police brutality protests across the United States.
In a June 1 tweet about the deployments, Morgan said, "Border Patrol Sectors are working with law enforcement partners across our nation to prevent further looting, rioting, arson, vandalism & destruction of property. As a federal law enforcement agency, it's our duty & responsibility to respond when our partners request support."
Harris said she sent a letter to Morgan on June 5 asking for CBP to provide information regarding the agency's actions at those demonstrations, including the types of identification and equipment CBP personnel were authorized to carry and the forms of force they were authorized to use.
She also asked Morgan to clarify who specifically ordered the deployment of CBP personnel to the ongoing nationwide protests.
According to Morgan, CBP received requests to deploy CBP personnel from various federal agencies and state and local police departments. He did not name any individuals or specific agencies.
CBP also came under criticism from House Democrats this month when it was reported the agency was part of a federal effort that used drones, airplanes and helicopters in several cities to monitor activists protesting the police killing of George Floyd.
"This administration has undermined the First Amendment freedoms of Americans of all races who are rightfully protesting George Floyd's killing," a group of Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, demanding a "complete list of jurisdictions where DHS conducted or assisted in conducting surveillance of any protests."
Morgan denied drones were used for surveillance and called the reports "false narratives."
Thursday's hearing came two days after Morgan accompanied President Donald Trump on a visit to a section of border wall in Arizona, which marked the completion of 200 miles of barrier. The administration aims to build 450 miles by the end of the year.
"My administration has done more than any administration in the history to secure our southern border. Our border has never been more secure," Trump said during Tuesday's visit.