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Md. second-grader gives first lady pop quiz on immigration

First lady Michelle Obama is questioned by a second grader about immigration policy while promoting her anti-obesity campaign at a Maryland elementary school.

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By Michael D. Shear and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 20, 2010

As much as they might want to defer the conversation, the politically charged issue of illegal immigration continues to dog members of the Obama administration.

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On Wednesday, with TV cameras rolling during an event to promote healthy eating, a second-grader at a Silver Spring elementary school asked first lady Michelle Obama why the president was "taking everybody away that doesn't have papers."

Sitting in front of a dozen schoolchildren, with the first lady of Mexico by her side, Obama told the girl: "That's something that we have to work on, right? To make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers."

"But my mom doesn't have any papers," the student blurted as soon as the first lady had finished.

In an instant, the spontaneous exchange crystallized the power of the immigration debate, sparking hours of cable news chatter, a rolling Twitter conversation and urgent questions about what, if anything, might happen to the girl's mother as a result of the unscripted moment.

On the day of a carefully choreographed state dinner with the Mexican president, it was another reminder of outside factors intruding on the Obama administration's careful and paced pursuit of a bipartisan agreement on immigration reform.

Last month, it was the passage of Arizona's immigration law, which forced the often divisive issue back into the national conversation and put pressure on the president to take action on behalf of angry pro-immigrant activists. More recently, embattled Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has pushed comprehensive immigration legislation onto the congressional agenda, a popular issue in his heavily Hispanic state.

The administration has sought to walk a fine line -- expressing a desire to move forward but acknowledging the fierce opposition that remains among Republicans, as well as some members of the president's party, on the issue.

Standing next to Mexican President Felipe Calderón in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, President Obama said, in essence, that the ball is in the GOP's court.

"I don't have 60 votes in the Senate. I've got to have some support from Republicans," Obama told reporters. "I don't expect to get every Republican vote, but I need some help in order to get it done."

That position has inflamed some advocates of immigration reform, who accuse Obama of failing to keep the campaign promise he made to pass a comprehensive overhaul.

"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 of America's Voice, a pro-immigrant group. "With comprehensive immigration reform stalled, and Arizona taking matters into their own hands, this young girl gives voice to the growing frustration and desperation in immigrant families and communities."

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