McALLEN, Texas — Melania Trump visited with migrant children Thursday during a brief stop at a Texas facility housing some of the youth separated from their parents as her husband's administration prosecutes adults who enter the U.S. illegally from Mexico.
The first lady, who has a 12-year-old son, smiled and laughed with the migrant children. "Be kind and nice to each other, OK," she said as she left one classroom at Upbring New Hope Children's Center and headed for another.
Plans for her to visit a second facility where children housed in cages were seen by The Associated Press last week were canceled because of flooding there.
The first lady said in a written statement after she returned to the White House that the visit had "impacted me greatly." She called on Congress to work together on immigration legislation that would benefit the children.
"Spending time with them reinforces the 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."
The first lady's stop in McAllen came one day after President Donald Trump ordered a halt, at least for now, to the separation of immigrant families who are detained at the border.
Her visit to the one-story, red brick building was quickly arranged after Mrs. Trump decided earlier this week that she wanted to go, her spokeswoman said, adding that she wanted to lend support to children who have been separated from their parents. The facility housed 55 boys and girls, ages 12-17, on Thursday, but only about six of them had been separated from parents, officials said. The other children were placed there after they crossed into the U.S. alone.
"I'm here to learn about your facility," the first lady said as she met with staff and federal health and border patrol officials. She asked how she could help "these children to reunite with their families as quickly as possible" and how often they communicate with their families. She learned the children are allowed a 10-minute phone call twice a week.
Students welcomed her with a large paper American flag taped to a wall that they'd signed. The words, "Welcome! First Lady" were written in black marker across the red and white bars. Mrs. Trump, herself an immigrant from Slovenia, signed the flag and gifted it back to the center.
She visited three classrooms, each time asking the children where they came from, their ages, how long they'd been at the center and their favorite subjects. Staff said the children, who are mostly from Guatemala, typically spend between 42 and 45 days at the facility, which is operated by a Lutheran social services organization contracted by the government.
The children are often distraught when they arrive, staff said, but they reassured Mrs. Trump the youth are quickly assessed for any physical or mental health issues and are well-cared for. The children attend school five days a week and have access to a variety of activities.
"We see them as if they were our own," said Roy De La Cerda, the program director.
Mrs. Trump left Washington wearing a green, hooded military jacket that had "I really don't care, do u?" written in graffiti-style on the back in white lettering that left the blogosphere wondering what message she was trying to send as she flew off to visit migrant children.
Asked about the message, spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said by email that it was just a jacket.
"There was no hidden message. After today's important visit to Texas, I hope the media isn't going to choose to focus on her wardrobe." Grisham underscored that message with a tweet and the hashtags #SheCares and #ItsJustAJacket.
Mrs. Trump had changed into a pale yellow jacket before arriving in McAllen and wore that during the more than hour-long visit to the center, but donned the green jacket once again as she returned to the White House. She went straight to the Oval Office to brief the president, who later tweeted that the jacket's message referred to her feelings about the "Fake News Media."
The president had come under withering pressure to stop separating migrant families, including from the first lady, following a public outcry sparked by widespread government-distributed images of children held in fence-like structures.
Some 2,300 migrant children have been separated from their families since May, according to the government.
Mrs. Trump reached her decision to make Thursday's trip before the president's executive order to keep families together was in the works.
"She told her staff she wanted to go and we made that happen," Grisham said. "She told him 'I am headed down to Texas' and he was supportive."
Mrs. Trump, whose focus as first lady is on child well-being, appears to have been among those pushing him to act.
Grisham released a statement last weekend saying the first lady "hates" to see children separated from their families and "believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."
Shortly before Trump signed the executive order, a White House official revealed that Mrs. Trump had been voicing her opinion to the president for some time. The official refused to be identified discussing Trump's private conversations with his wife.