Her first stop was the U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility in Tucson.
“I’m here to support you and give my help, whatever I can — [on] behalf of children and the families,” she told officials from the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and the U.S. Marshals Service.
She held a roundtable discussion with the government officials, where she was told that tough enforcement at the border had acted as a deterrent to illegal immigration.
“There has to be consequences for violations of law,” Rodolfo Karisch, the chief patrol agent, told the first lady. “Because if you don’t have consequences, then . . . you promote additional illegal activity.”
But Trump also sought to connect with the families and children being housed in Tuscon by touring a short-term holding facility where people crossing the border illegally are taken.
Reporters following the first lady on the tour heard her say, “How are you?” to a little boy who was being held, along with his mother, in a cell marked “Family Unit 8.” Around them were other cells with signs that said “Males,” “Juveniles,” “Families.” The cells were also marked “Processed” or “Unprocessed,” according to pool reports.
Later in the day, she visited Southwest Key Campbell in Phoenix, a Department of Health and Human Services-funded facility that houses immigrant children.
The unusual attention Melania Trump is paying to the issue indicates that it has become a priority for a first lady who has previously shown little interest in diving into the choppy waters of her husband’s policies.
But what to make of her interest? Like so much about the extremely private first lady, it’s a bit of an enigma: Some see her message on these trips as counter to her husband’s hard-line approach. Her staff says she has good intentions, but that message was muddied last week when she visited the border in Texas. She boarded her plane wearing a jacket bearing the phrase “I really don’t care. Do u?” She was not wearing the coat when she landed in Texas.
In McAllen, Tex., where she first stopped on the border last week, she told the people running the Upbring New Hope Children’s Shelter — where more than 50 children were being housed at the time — that she wanted to ensure that families were reunified.
“I’m here to learn about your facility . . . to ask you how I can help these children be reunited with their families as quickly as possible,” she said.
In Arizona, she again turned the discussion with officials, who talked about the importance of enforcement, to the topic her staff says is her primary focus: “How many children?” she asked.
When she visited the shelter in Phoenix, Trump greeted a group of children in Spanish and English, saying “Hola. Hola. Hello. How are you? Como estas?”
Those moments have some advocates of immigration reform optimistic that she may be their ally. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.), whose district Trump visited on her first trip, said he was skeptical of her motivation, but he’s taking her words of concern at face value.
“It seems like maybe the administration put her up to it, but she’s an immigrant and a mother so I hope there’s some sincerity,” he said. “The bottom line is that we welcome anyone who wants to care for these children.”
Others don’t see a first lady opposing her husband’s policies, but rather one in a familiar role: putting a softer face on her husband’s administration.
As her motorcade arrived at the Phoenix complex, it passed a group of several dozen protesters with a large inflatable effigy of President Trump wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and a sign that read: “End All Cages. Free the parents and children.”
Clarissa Martínez de Castro, deputy vice president for policy and advocacy for UnidosUS, says that unless the first lady follows up her visits with meaningful actions, they’ll be seen as just more photo ops.
“If this is an issue of importance to the first lady, the field is vast for engagement and follow-up and her voice,” she said. “I’m not sure we saw a lot from her coming out of the first visit.”
Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University in New Jersey who studies first ladies, says that the aims of Trump’s advocacy — and the extent to which they differ from her husband’s — seem opaque. Where her husband talks tough, “I see her as trying to mitigate that,” she said.
“It could be that she has both a genuine desire to help and to separate herself from her husband,” Gutin said. “Like everything with this administration, you cannot pin it down.”
There were moments from Trump’s visits that seemed to indicate she was there not to change the status quo, but to applaud it. She nodded and said, “That’s great,” after being told that children remained at the Texas shelter from 42 to 45 days.
In Arizona, she offered gratitude to the immigration officials, including those from ICE, which some Democrats have suggested should be abolished. “I appreciate all you do on behalf of the country,” she said.
Whatever the first lady’s motivation, her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, says it is hers alone. On the way to McAllen, Grisham told a small group of reporters traveling with the first lady that the trip was Mrs. Trump’s idea — not her husband’s or that of their staffs.
“This was her decision. She told her staff she wanted to go, and we made that happen,” Grisham said. “He is supportive of it, but she told him, ‘I’m headed down to Texas,’ and he supported it.”