Reporting from Washington — First Lady Michelle Obama came face-to-face with the sometimes-uncomfortable repercussions of her husband's immigration enforcement policies Wednesday when a second-grader voiced her worries that her mother might be deported.
It happened as Mrs. Obama toured an elementary school in the Washington, D.C., area with Margarita Zavala, the first lady of Mexico, two hours before President Obama renewed his call for comprehensive immigration reform. At one point, Mrs. Obama took questions from a dozen second-grade students who sat in a small circle on the gymnasium floor at the New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md.
"My mom said … Barack Obama is going to take away everybody that doesn't have papers," one girl told the first lady.
"Yeah, well, that's something that we have to work on, right?" Mrs. Obama replied. "To make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right? That's exactly right."
The girl countered, "But my mom doesn't have any."
"Well, we have to work on that, we have to fix that and everybody's got to work together in Congress to make sure that happens. That's right," Mrs. Obama said before moving on to the next question.
Immigrant rights activists seized on the dialogue, which occurred before President Obama addressed immigration with Mexican President Felipe Calderon in the White House Rose Garden.
"This heartbreaking exchange says more about the current state of the immigration debate than the remarks of the two presidents in the Rose Garden," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a pro-immigration reform group, noting that deportations nationally have gone up under Obama.
The Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says its priority is to remove illegal immigrants who are violent criminals. But it maintains a goal of 400,000 deportations this year, which would be a record. Most of those people would not fall into the criminal category, agency statistics show, and some probably would include parents of children who are U.S. citizens.
John Morton, the former federal prosecutor who heads the agency, has said it often exercises discretion in deciding whether to deport illegal immigrants. But officials make no apologies for enforcing a law that calls for the removal of any illegal immigrant, not just criminals.
The New Hampshire Estates school enrolls about 400 students from pre-K through second grade, many of whom are of Central and South American descent, school officials said.
Schools are prohibited by U.S. law from asking students about immigration status, said Dana Tofig, spokesman for the Montgomery County school district. Other laws, he said, prohibit the school from identifying the child to the news media.