First lady Melania Trump arrived in McAllen, Texas, on Thursday in an unannounced trip to the border area amid the administration's crisis over the separation of families.
Before embarking on a tour of Upbring New Hope Children's Shelter, which currently houses about 60 migrant children, most of them teenagers, Mrs. Trump thanked the staff and participated in a question-and-answer session with shelter workers while sitting in front of walls papered with colorful children's art.
"I'm here to learn about the facility to which I know you housed children on a long-term basis," she told the group. "And I also like to ask you how I can help these children reunite with their families as quickly as possible."
The first lady's visit offered a distinctly different set of visuals on a crisis that has so far been illustrated by the sights and sounds of children housed in what look like cages and wailing for their parents. The facility Mrs. Trump chose to visit is a small, permanent shelter that opened in 2014 and typically houses children who cross the border without a parent, a group of migrants known as unaccompanied alien children.
According to a senior administration official, six of the 60 children from Honduras and El Salvador housed at that shelter were separated from their parents.
The first lady questioned the nonprofit shelter staff over the family status of the children and how frequently they can talk to their parents — twice a week, a staffer told her, once the child's parents are confirmed to actually be their parents.
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Mrs. Trump had also planned to try and visit a customs and border patrol processing center, but had to cancel because of flooding in the area. A statement from the first lady's office said she wanted to "hear more on how the administration can build upon the already existing efforts to reunite children with their families."
A spokesperson told reporters the trip was planned before President Donald Trump ended the policy; the trip was "100 percent her idea — she absolutely wanted to come."
Her two-hour visit came as the Trump administration has tried to spin the family separation crisis in their favor. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new "zero tolerance" policy in April that directs authorities to prosecute all instances of illegal border crossings, resulting in thousands of children being separated from their parents or legal guardians in a six-week period. The Trump administration at first maintained that the increasing number of children being separated from their mothers at the U.S. southern border was not a policy of its own making but just a tragic byproduct of enforcing the law against illegal border crossings.
Amid growing backlash and media reports of the facilities in which the children were being held, the president sought repeatedly to blame "bad legislation passed by Democrats" for his policy while claiming Congress alone could fix it.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen claimed first that there was no family separation policy, then in a White House press briefing Monday blamed Congress for it and argued that family separation was simply a continuation of previous administrations' policies. That's false —the Obama administration usually detained children and parents together — but it's a defense Trump himself seized on in recent days after being confronted by increasingly angry members of his own party who spoke out against the policy.
On Wednesday, Trump issued an executive order halting his administration's family separation practice, but did not address where newly arriving families would stay or how the 2,300 children already separated will be reunited with their parents.
"Our first lady is down now at the border, because it really bothered her to be looking at this and seeing this, as it bothered me," Trump said on Thursday at a Cabinet meeting, before complaining that the crisis was the fault of Democratic lawmakers who "don't care about the children."
The president cited his wife and daughter on Wednesday when signing the executive order on the matter.
"Ivanka feels very strongly. My wife feels very strongly about it. I feel very strongly about it. I think anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it. We don't like to see families separated. At the same time, we don't want people coming into our country illegally. This takes care of the problem," he said. He did not mention that an executive order wasn't needed to end the practice, as the Department of Justice had begun implementing the policy without one.
Mrs. Trump waded into the controversy on Sunday, releasing a rare statement hours before Laura Bush and the other living former first ladies — Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama — weighed in on the issue, too.
"Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform," according to a statement from her spokeswoman. "She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."
The president said Thursday he would direct agencies to reunite families who had been separated under his administration's practice, though the timeline for that is still unclear. The executive order issued Wednesday suggested the government intends to detain whole families together in the future.
House Republicans have been working on two bills meant to address the immigration issues Trump has said need fixing. On Thursday, members voted down a conservative immigration bill, and GOP leaders postponed the vote on a compromise measure originally scheduled for later in the day.
Members rejected legislation authored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and favored by conservatives that would have authorized — but not appropriated — government funding for a border wall. It also would not have provided a pathway to citizenship for those eligible under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The vote on the compromise measure had been slated for early Thursday evening, but House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that vote had been postponed until Friday to give members more time to review the legislation.