McALLEN — Melania Trump made an unannounced visit Thursday to the Rio Grande Valley, where she toured a children’s detention center and 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 was scheduled to tour two facilities in the area, but her trip was cut short due to widespread flooding.
Her visit to Upbring New Hope Children’s Center, where 55 children are housed, came the morning after President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting the practice of separating these families. It was intended to lend support to those children who remain separated from their parents.
CNN tweeted a prepared statement from the first lady, reading: “Today’s visit impacted me greatly. I was very impressed with the center and the hardworking staff and leadership there — and thank them for all of their hard work.”
She went on to say that she found children were eager to learn and in good spirits.
“Spending time with them reinforces that fact that these kids are in this situation as a direct result of adult actions,” she said. “It is my hope that members of Congress will finally reach across the aisle and work together to solve this problem with common sense immigration reform that secures our borders and keeps families together.”
Third-graders at the McAllen facility welcomed the first lady with a large paper American flag they’d signed and 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.
“I’ve heard they’re very happy and they love to study,” she said.
Staff told her children are “very distraught” and “don’t know where they are” when they first arrive.
“The first 24 hours are crucial for us,” one staff member said, adding that the children undergo several orientations when they first arrive, including a legal one. “It’s a process.”
The orientations are given so they understand their current placing.
“This is to … keep them as calm as possible and to reassure them that they are in a safe place; that they will be well taken care of here; that they don’t have anything to worry about,” one staff member told her. “Now they’re in a safe environment — free from abuse.”
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.”
The visit was marred with controversy when the first lady was spotted wearing a green-hooded jacket that read “I really don’t care, do u?” as she boarded the plane to South Texas.
When asked what message the first lady’s jacket intended to send, Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s spokeswoman, said: “It’s a jacket. There was no hidden message.”
The first lady wore a different pale yellow jacket when she landed in McAllen.
President Trump said his wife was taking a dig at the news media when she wore it.
The slogan “written on the back of Melania’s jacket, refers to the Fake News Media,” he said, adding, “Melania has learned how dishonest they are, and she truly no longer cares!”
Two local Democrats, U.S. Congressmen Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, and Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, issued statements thanking the first lady for her visit Thursday.
“Children are sacred — no matter where they are from,” Gonzalez said. “I would like to extend my gratitude to First Lady Melania Trump for visiting South Texas to assess the situation firsthand and standing up for children, American values, and humanity.”
Gonzalez invited her to return to the area as Congress worked to find a solution to the crisis.
Cuellar, who recently came under fire for accepting campaign contributions from a company that runs immigrant detention centers, said he sent a letter Wednesday to President Trump, urging him and the first lady to visit and to keep families together at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The situation regarding how families were being separated at the border was unnecessary and avoidable,” Cuellar said. “I thank the First Lady for taking the time to perform this call of duty and witness for herself these unaccompanied children facilities.”
This story was compiled from reports by AP reporters Darlene Superville and Catherine Lucey and Monitor staff writer Naxiely Lopez-Puente.