By Michael D. Shear and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 20, 2010; A01
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.
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."
Among conservatives, the girl's comments became fresh fodder for criticism of the administration's handling of border security. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh accused the White House of planting the question from the little girl, saying that she then botched the delivery.
"This second-grader was supposed to say 'Arizona,' not 'Obama,' " Limbaugh said on his show Wednesday afternoon. "I don't think there's any doubt it was a setup question."
But even those who advocate the harshest treatment for illegal immigrants were declining to call for an investigation into the status of the girl's mother. In an interview, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said, "I think it's hard to start an investigation on a statement from a 7-year-old."
A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said, "While ICE continues to work with Congress to enact reform, we remain focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on convicted criminal aliens who pose a threat to our communities."
Michelle Obama had taken her Mexican counterpart, Margarita Zavala, to Montgomery County's New Hampshire Estates Elementary School to show off the school's fitness program, diverse student body and family-style lunches. The two women joined 14 second-graders for their gym class. After hopping, skipping and running -- as well as flinging balls around in a giant parachute -- they all sat in a circle, and the children asked questions.
Principal Jane Litchko said later that the school's policy is not to ask about children's immigration status and that the topic of immigration is not covered in their classes. "They're only 7," Litchko said, adding that she did not feel comfortable discussing the exchange between the first lady and the girl, who remained unidentified Wednesday evening. "The parents trust me that this is a safe place," she said.
Litchko said that the school had called the girl's parents to let them know what had happened and that the girl had gone home after school "the regular way."
Staff writers Daniel de Vise and Robin Givhan contributed to this report.