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The Obamas have a duty to visit migrant children detained at US-Mexico border

Commentary: What happens when children who have been taught to believe that the United States is a safe haven journey north, only to learn it actually isn't?
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(Emily Judem/GlobalPost)

NEW YORK — There are few universal truths we can settle on in this world. But one of the few truths we can probably all agree on is that children are not political animals — they are not motivated by politics and while they are often caught in political spheres, they are never the actors.

They are the shells the waves lap up and turn around and then let settle before another wave turns them topsy-turvy again. The children in world politics are the shells being tumbled about.

And so it has been with much pain and consternation that I have watched the story unfold about the children of Central America trying desperately to escape fear by running to a place they thought was a refuge. These children who have been taught to believe the United States is a country that is a haven. Can we hear it just one more time for the Statue of Liberty and Emma Lazarus?

I have watched as people who have supported this president have lost their trust in him because as the leader of the free world he has told these children in no uncertain terms that we will make the conditions under which we hold you more humane, but make no mistake about it, you don't belong here and we don't want you here.

You will be returned from where you came, President Obama said.

Obama couldn't even take the time to meet one of these children when he was visiting Texas. It didn't have to be a photo-op, Mr. President. You are the president. If you wanted meaningful dialogue with these kids, and not just a photo-op, you could have had it.

And yet, the words tumble out of his mouth as they do from Michelle Obama's, who spoke recently to the annual LULAC convention. “My husband is doing all he can to help these children,” she said.

But it seems all he can do is push more money to border enforcement and deportations.

I took to social media and quoted the first lady, asking what my Twitter followers thought: Could the president be doing more? Every response I received indicated that people were losing faith in Obama.

And they have now also turned on his wife. I have heard from waitresses, make-up artists, teachers and bank tellers who have shared with me their shock at the inaction of our country to help these child refugees in our hemisphere.

They are not ‘unaccompanied minors,’ this sanitized label that has been given to these kids. They are children looking for safe have and refuge. Period.

If Michelle Obama truly cared about kids perhaps she would go down there immediately, without her entourage and speak to the children and hear from them. Unfiltered.

Doesn't she say her work is all about the children? This habit of saying one thing but doing another has now gone beyond upsetting immigration activists and allies. It has seeped into the general consciousness. See how many cities and towns have said they will welcome these children now, the number of people saying they will open their homes, organizations trying to open abandoned buildings in places like upstate NY to house these kids looking for safety.

If the first lady did pay a visit to the border, she could then perhaps be the one to dispel the notion that these are not refugees. She could see for herself that there is no difference between these kids and the children we are more accustomed to seeing as "refugees" — the ones with distended bellies and soldiers with machine guns at their backs.

Perhaps then she could help get rid of the blinders that don't allow her or the country to see the same look of fear and desperation we see in the eyes of children refugees from Syria, Somalia or Iraq.

Our president and his wife have urged other countries to open their borders to other refugees. But here in our moment to be on the right side of history, to stand up and say “we see you,” to act in the face of a huge international humanitarian crisis — our leaders say and do nothing but increase the budget to almost $4 billion, in order to deport these children faster?

Remember these children are not political animals and yet, the narrative created by critics of the Obama administration is that each of these kids is a young Fidel Castro — not that they are communists but that they only operate because of political self-interest.

The line they have followed is that these frightened kids somehow had time to read newspapers or download speeches by the president and that these kids, from some of the poorest countries, have the political sophistication to know that it was time to run from their countries because the new Obama policy was to be lax on kids?

Really?

None of these politicians or pundits has probably ever stepped foot inside one of the barrios in Honduras or El Salvador or Guatemala where these kids live. How many of them have spoken to these children?

I recently interviewed a whistleblower who works in one of the centers where these refugee children are being held.

This anonymous source told me that the children have been telling stories about how terrified they were at home. My source said that multiple children who did not have contact with one another and arrived at different times said the same thing.

The children talked about family members being killed for refusing to join gangs, about relentless recruitment and threats and their journeys north on La Bestia — the northern bound train, called The Beast, which is notorious for its danger. Our source was expecting the kids to be more traumatized by the trip on La Bestia, which is known for mangling bodies that often fall off and giving cover to rapists who assault while the train is in motion. It is too noisy to hear the screams of those being violated.

What the children probably did not expect is that getting to the US surviving rapists and thugs and traffickers would be easy compared to the terror of being detained upon arrival.

According to my source, the children said the most traumatic thing since leaving their home has been the horror and fear of detention in the US. They gave a name to the place they were held: La Hielera — the ice box.

This is torture by temperature — aiming to freeze these children into shock. And just about starve them too. Our whistle blower says multiple children who did not know each other said the same thing about the conditions — frozen food or spoiled sandwiches given only twice a day. Lights on at all times so there’s no way to distinguish day from night. No windows. If there was a window, and a child went to stand by it, they were punished.

So many children have been housed together that they often have to sleep standing up.

How would you feel if your child were held, for any reason by another government, in a Hielera?

At this point no one is expecting anything from the Republican party. Only the president keeps on waiting while the rest of the country only sees obstructionism.

Meanwhile, a pox on our house as we sink down to the level of believing an untruth — that children are capable of making strategic and savvy political decisions and they are not real refugees.

This is our moment in history to stand for something as big as the tearing down of the Berlin Wall or the crisis of Romanian orphanages and yet our leadership does nothing but throw money and guns at the problem. The president need only look to the early 1960's when, faced with child refugees from Cuba, then-President John F. Kennedy created an executive order to allow those children in without their parents. It has been done in the past. It could happen now.

The disappointment runs deep this summer. The possibility to change the course of history lies in the hands of the president, and yes, of the first lady. If these children are not motivated by politics then surely Michelle Obama can also set politics aside. She can be motivated by her heart and by the thing she says she values most — motherhood.

Go and see these refugees at our doorstep. And take the words of Lazarus with you.

GlobalPost columnist Maria Hinojosa is a regular contributor to the VOICES series on the GlobalPost commentary page. She is president and CEO of The Futuro Media Group, which produces LatinoUSA, the longest running Latino news program in America.

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This piece is part of a new GlobalPost Special Reports/Commentary initiative supported by the Ford Foundation called "VOICES." The mission of VOICES is to present the ideas and opinions of those who are less frequently heard in the media, including women, people of color, sexual minorities, citizens of the developing world and young people. These voices will consistently discuss topics important to GlobalPost Special Reports including human rights, religious issues, global health, economic inequality and democracies in transition.

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