McALLEN, Texas (AP) — Melania Trump made an unannounced visit to a Texas facility Thursday, talking with children and staff as she got a first-hand look at some of the migrant children sent there by the U.S. government after their families entered the country illegally.
The first lady's stop at Upbring New Hope Children's Center came the morning after President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting the practice of separating these families. The visit to the one-story red brick building, which houses 55 children between the ages of 12 and 17, was intended to lend support to those children who remain separated from their parents, said Stephanie Grisham, the first lady's spokeswoman.
"She wanted to see everything for herself," Grisham said.
Third-graders at the facility welcomed the first lady with a large paper American flag they'd signed taped to a wall. With the words, "Welcome! First Lady" written in black marker across the red and white bars, Mrs. Trump also signed the flag, which the children gave to her. Next to the flag on the classroom walls: A drawing of a flowering plant, a butterfly, a hummingbird and a heart, with the words, "New Hope, We Love You All, Staff" written in cursive.
Visiting another classroom, Mrs. Trump asked children where they were from, if they were friends and how long they'd been at the center where staff said children typically spend between 42 and 45 days. The children responded, sometimes in English, other times in Spanish, many of them wearing gray T-shirts with the red, white and blue words "We Are One." She told children to "be kind and nice to each other" as she left for another classroom.
The first lady thanked the staff for their "heroic work" and asked them to reunite the children with their families as quickly as possible. In a makeshift conference room, Mrs. Trump met with staff from New Hope, HHS and border patrol, asking several questions about the children's welfare and asking that the children be reunited with their families "as quickly as possible."
New Hope staff reassured Mrs. Trump, who was accompanied by Health and Human Services secretary Alex Azar, that the children are assessed for physical and mental health issues when they enter the facility and are often distraught. They attend school five days a week and have a variety of activities.
"We just have a tremendous passion for working with these children," said program director Roy De La Cerda. "We see them as our own."
President Trump had come under pressure to stop the practice of separating families, including from GOP allies and the first lady herself, following a public outcry sparked by widespread images of children held in fence-like structures. Plans for a visit to a second facility where children housed in cages were seen by The Associated Press last week were canceled because of flooding.
The trip was intended to lend support to some of the more than 2,300 children who remain separated from their parents, Grisham said. In addition to the meetings with staff and children, Mrs. Trump also was briefed on the children's medical care by nursing staff.
The president had insisted incorrectly that his administration had no choice but to separate families apprehended at the border because children cannot go to jail with adults who are being criminally prosecuted for crossing the border illegally. Trump had said only Congress could fix the problem and he specifically pointed a finger at Democrats.
He reversed course Wednesday by signing the order ending separations and keeping families together when they are in custody, at least for the next few weeks. The administration's "zero-tolerance" policy of criminally prosecuting illegal border-crossers, which has led to the removal of some 2,300 children from their parents since May, remains.
When asked Thursday if the first lady supports the policy, Grisham said, "She supports that the law should be followed."
The trip came together within the past 48 hours, Grisham said.
"She told her staff she wanted to go and we made that happen," she said.
President Trump spilled the beans about his wife's trip to the border before it was announced, telling reporters during a Cabinet meeting: "My wife, our first lady, is down now at the border because it really bothered her to be looking at this and seeing it, as it bothered me, as it bothered everybody at this table. We're all bothered by it."
Grisham said that the first lady had the full backing of her husband.
"She told him 'I am headed down to Texas' and he was supportive."
Mrs. Trump, whose focus as first lady is on child well-being, appears to have been among those pushing her husband to act.
Grisham released a statement last weekend saying the first lady "hates" to see children separated from their families and "believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."
Hours before Trump used his executive order to halt family separations, a White House official let it be known that Mrs. Trump had been voicing her opinion to the president for some time, including that he needed to help families stay together. The official refused to be identified discussing Trump's private conversations with his wife.
Trump acknowledged Wednesday that the mother of his 12-year-old son, Barron, had been prodding him.
"My wife feels very strongly about it," he told reporters after he signed the order.
The pair of statements from the first lady amounted to an unusual public intervention by Mrs. Trump into a policy debate. Her four former living predecessors, seemingly encouraged after Laura Bush authored a scathing opinion piece, followed with sharper commentary of their own condemning the family separations as shameful.
The last-minute trip to Texas marks the first public action by Mrs. Trump since she announced in May an initiative named "Be Best" to focus on the overall well-being of children and help teach them kindness. She had been expected to travel to promote the campaign but was sidelined a week after the announcement following surgery to treat a benign kidney condition.