First lady Melania Trump made an unusual visit Thursday to a Texas facility housing migrant children who have been separated from their parents, as the Trump administration backtracks on its harsh enforcement policy for families crossing the border illegally.
The visit, which was not announced ahead of time, is another sign that members of President Trump's own family have been uncomfortable with the policy of removing children from their families. Trump reversed the policy Wednesday, but the next steps are not clear yet for children like those Melania Trump saw Thursday.
“I'm here to learn about your facility,” Melania Trump said as she received a briefing about the work of Upbring New Hope Children's Shelter. She told facility directors that she wants to “ask you how I can help these children be reunited with their families as quickly as possible.”
Rogelio De La Cerda Jr., the shelter's program director, told her that the children are “in a safe environment, free from abuse.”
“We provide a lot of structure. We try to educate them; we try to assimilate them to what the public school environment is like,” he said. “This is home. They refer to this as a shelter, but this is their home.”
President Trump announced the visit at the start of a Cabinet meeting at the White House, saying that Melania Trump had gone to the border “because it really bothered her to be looking at this and seeing it, as it bothered me.”
Trump accused congressional Democrats of deliberately blocking potential solutions, falsely saying that Democrats are responsible for “loopholes” that “lead to family separation.” The separation policy is one option under federal law, but Trump's administration made the enforcement decision and then changed that enforcement.
“They're the worst immigration laws in the history of the world,” Trump said. “The rest of the world is laughing.”
Trump also criticized Mexico, which he said “does nothing” to prevent illegal immigration.
“Mexico is doing nothing except taking our money and sending us drugs and doing nothing,” Trump said. “They could solve this problem in two minutes.”
Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter and adviser, tweeted Thursday that “it is time to focus on swiftly and safely reuniting the families that have been separated.”
Melania Trump's communications director, Stephanie Grisham, told reporters traveling with her that the first lady had asked Tuesday that the trip be organized, one day before the president issued an executive order changing his policy.
“I don’t know what she knew. She knew what she wanted to do, and she told us,” Grisham said.
“She wanted to see everything for herself. ... She supports family reunification. She thinks that it’s important that children stay with their families.”
“This was 100 percent her idea. She absolutely wanted to come” and did not change her mind after the executive order was issued, Grisham added.
“She wants to see what’s happening for herself, and she wants to lend her support — executive order or not. The executive order certainly is helping pave the way a little bit, but there’s still a lot to be done.”
President Trump supported the trip but did not send his wife on his behalf, Grisham said.
“This was her decision. She told her staff she wanted to go, and we made that happen. He is supportive of it but she told him, 'I’m headed down to Texas,’ and he supported it.”
The facility in McAllen, Tex., is operated by Lutheran Social Services. Directors told the first lady that the more than 50 children housed there are ages 12 and older and that all but six had arrived at the border without their parents. That means they are not the toddlers and young children whose anguish at being recently separated from their families has fueled broad criticism of the administration.
“She’s seen the images. She’s heard the recordings,” Grisham said. “She was on top of the situation before any of that came out. She was concerned about it.”
The spokeswoman said she does not know whether the first lady's own background as an immigrant affected her thinking. Melania Trump immigrated to the U.S. from her native Slovenia.
“When she came into this country, she did it legally, and she feels that everybody should enter the country legally,” Grisham said.
Grisham later told a pool reporter traveling with the first lady that “there was no hidden message” in the design of a jacket that Melania Trump wore at the start of the trip. The green jacket had white words on the back, written in graffiti style, that read, “I really don’t care. Do U?”
The large lettering was visible as the first lady boarded her plane at Joint Base Andrews, outside Washington, on Thursday morning. Images of her departure were released later in the day because reporters and photographers traveling with her were not allowed to report on the trip until the first lady arrived in Texas.