(CNN) — First lady Melania Trump touched down in McAllen, Texas, Thursday making a publicly unannounced and hastily planned trip to get a first-hand look at the crisis affecting immigrant families at the US border.
“I want to thank you for your hard work, your compassion and your kindness,” the first lady said at a roundtable briefing at Upbring New Hope, with doctors and medical staff, social workers and other experts on hand.
Melania Trump becomes the first Trump family member to personally witness the situation that has captured the country’s attention over the past several weeks.
“She wants to see what’s real,” said the first lady’s spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham told CNN during a 10-minute press briefing en route to Texas. “She wanted to see as close to what she had been seeing on TV. She wants to see a realistic view of what’s happening.”
The first lady’s visit comes one day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to cease his own administration’s separation practice that has caused wide-ranging criticism and consternation. Previously the President had insisted Congress needed to act to stop the practice, but then reversed that claim.
Trump’s first stop in Texas is the Upbring New Hope Children’s Center, part of Lutheran Social Services of the South, also in McAllen, Texas, a department of health and human services-overseen facility.
She was greeted by Upbring CEO Dr. Kirk Senske, who outlined Upbring’s five markers of success: safety, life skills, health, education and vocation. The facility here opened in 2014 and there are currently 58 children aged 12-17.
“We’re honored to show you our shelter,” Senske told Trump. “We treat them like our own children.”
During the roundtable, Trump asked several questions including how many times the children speak with their families. She was told twice a week, but the official noted that there is a process to verify that the persons they are communicating with are their families.
She also asked what kind of physical and mental health the children come to the facility in.
The children are “usually distraught” when they arrive, Trump was told, but “when they see the environment they start relaxing.”
Upon arrival, basic needs are taken care of — showers, clothing, food.
“The first 24 hours are crucial,” she was told.
An administration official briefing the press before the visit said most children at an HHS-funded and regulated facility such as this one remain there for approximately 58 days, receiving medical, dental, vision and psychological care, as well as what the official described as the ability to be inside a “safe and happy environment.”
The official emphasized the predominant mission at this stage of the process for unaccompanied children, is to place them back with appropriate sponsors. Those sponsors can be their parents, if the parents are not involved in the judicial or criminal process or they can be other approved family members already living inside the United States.
If neither of those options are possible, which is the case in about 10% of the unaccompanied children, then they are placed with vetted foster families or volunteers.
Acting or commenting from the sidelines apparently was not enough for Trump, who fewer than 48 hours ago informed her staff — and her husband, the President of the United States — that she had decided she needed to see for herself the family intake and unaccompanied children facilities.
The facilities have all but dominated the news for days on end, causing heated political battles from the White House to Capitol Hill, ricocheting around the world in an uproar of disbelief and consternation.
“‘I’m headed down to Texas,'” is what Grisham said the first lady told her husband, and “he was supportive.”
Grisham confirmed the trip would have taken place whether or not the President signed an executive order on Wednesday.
“This was 100% her idea,” said Grisham of Trump’s decision to travel to McAllen, making clear the first lady is not on a mission assigned by the President nor is she acting as his emissary. “She wanted to come down.”
The first lady intends to inform the President on what she sees.
“She will continue to update her husband,” said Grisham, confirming what was reported first yesterday by CNN, that the first lady had been actively lobbying the president behind the scenes, encouraging him to stop the separation of children as swiftly as possible, either via legislative process or executive power.
The latter was ultimately the route Trump chose, in a stunning reversal of his previous rhetoric.
“As with a many topics she will continue to give her husband her opinions,” Grisham said.
Like most of the country, the first lady has been watching media reports about children taken from their parents and placed in holding facilities.
It is unclear what, exactly, Trump intends to accomplish from this visit to Texas, outside of seeing firsthand what is happening today in America.
Since becoming first lady, Trump has said she wants to champion helping children, yet has been for the most part vague about how exactly she intends to accomplish her goal. In May, Trump unveiled her “Be Best” platform, which outlined three predominant avenues of focus: health and well being; kindness and safety online; and highlighting the effects of the opioid crisis on children and families.
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