TORNILLO, Texas — The incident commander of the Tornillo tent facility, where 326 immigrant children are currently being detained, called the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy that separates immigrant children from their families "an incredibly dumb, stupid decision" that harmed the kids.
He added that he and his staff despise the job they have to do.
"I'm totally against the separation. Should never have happened," the incident commander told a group of reporters, including BuzzFeed News. On Monday morning, media were let into the Tornillo detention facility — under heavy restrictions — for the first visit since it opened June 14.
"It was an incredibly dumb, stupid decision by our leadership," said the Tornillo incident commander. "It was flawed. All it did was harm children, no question about it."
As part of the restrictions on reporters — including banning cameras and recording devices — the Department of Health and Human Services said media was not allowed to report the incident commander's name.
The incident commander is not a government employee but works for BCFS, a large nonprofit based in Texas that responds to emergency events.
BCFS has a contract with the government to respond to emergency shelter requests and is responsible for the logistics of the Tornillo tent compound. It was opened specifically to handle the overflow of children in facilities, as 303 of the children detained in Tornillo arrived across the border as unaccompanied minors.
"This operation would not have been necessary without the separations," said the incident commander. "Crisis was made as a result of the decision to separate the kids. 100%."
The children at the Tornillo facility, located about 30 miles outside of El Paso, are between ages 13 and 17. The majority of them are teenage boys. Twenty-six were separated from parents; three of them have been reunified with family members.
The incident commander said he'd been advocating for the media to be allowed into the center to see how well it was running. He compared it to a youth summer camp, noting the children are fed well, sleep in bunks in tents, and play soccer. He also noted that the medical services — both mental and physical — plus the safety and security of Tornillo, were far superior to a normal camp.
More than 20 journalists toured the facility. Journalists were asked not to speak with workers or children staying at the facility, and were only allowed to walk around with the group and follow a designated tour by HHS.
The incident commander also noted that the impact of the media reporting and political scandal of the center made their jobs horrible.
Security is a concern at the facility, he said, noting he fears it is a "prime target for an active shooter" and that they'd had at least one credible threat. The incident commander showed journalists copies of tweets posted late last week from a man from Corpus Christi who was threatening the facility and tweeting that it was "time to kill." The FBI apprehended the man, he said.
"If I could go home today, I would," said the commander.
He noted that his staffers were people who'd worked in the aftermath of 9/11 and were respected highway patrol workers and fire chiefs.
"They hate this mission. They get treated badly by you guys," said the incident commander, referring to the media, but also blaming HHS for not giving the media access and information.
"I would rather never do this mission again. Too controversial," said the incident commander.
"I want to be done with this mission 100%," he said.