WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon railed Wednesday against Arizona's new immigration law and pressed Congress to pass a national immigration overhaul, but a second-grade girl at a school in the Maryland suburbs unwittingly made a more passionate case.
Calderon kicked off a two-day state visit to Washington with a bilateral meeting and joint news conference with Obama.
The men applauded their partnership on drug enforcement. Obama said the U.S. now was screening 100 percent of southbound rail cargo. They pledged to work their way through cross-border trucking and other trade issues.
Before a state dinner, Calderon also spoke to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There he suggested that the North American Free Trade Agreement needs a boost to make the U.S., Mexico and Canada more competitive globally. He's expected to repeat the themes of closer integration and immigration restructuring in an address Thursday to a joint session of Congress.
"The truth is we have lost the initial advantage NAFTA gave us," Calderon told the Chamber.
He also characterized the drug war in frank terms.
"My neighbor is the largest consumer of drugs, and everyone wants to sell him drugs through my window," he said.
However, immigration was the burning political concern for both men.
They made it clear that they oppose the new Arizona law, which gets local police involved in immigration enforcement by asking individuals to verify their status. Obama called it "misdirected" and reiterated that he may challenge its constitutionality. The leaders also said that the law increased the need for Congress to pass an overhaul creating a path to citizenship for those who were now in the U.S. illegally.
Meanwhile, first lady Michelle Obama and Calderon's wife, Margarita Zavala, had traveled nine miles northeast of the White House to meet with children at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School in Silver Spring, Md.
The school has a butterfly study program with a sister school in Mexico and counts many students of Central American and South American descent. The plan was for the presidents' wives to talk to the children about healthy eating and exercise as part of Michelle Obama's anti-obesity initiative.
However, in the midst of the question-and-answer session, one girl told Michelle Obama, "My mom said that — I think that she says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn't have papers."
Michelle Obama said the issue was "something that we have to work on, right, to make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right? That's exactly right."
"But my mom doesn't have" any papers, the girl said.
The first lady quickly moved on after concluding "everybody has got to work together in Congress to make sure that that happens." However, the video, replayed on cable news, soon caught the attention of immigration activists across the spectrum. School officials didn't identify the girl.
"Congress definitely has a role to play in this. But so does the president," said Deepak Bhargava, the executive director of the Center for Community Change, a liberal group. "We call on him to lead with the same fervor and moral force he showed in reforming our health care system. Second-graders shouldn't have to worry about their mothers being taken away."
Frank Sharry, the executive director of another liberal group, America's Voice, called the question "heartbreaking" and said the Obama administration was on track to exceed the Bush administration's deportation levels.
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes illegal immigration, said if the girl's mother were in the country illegally and feared deportation, "it's clearly a bad situation," but that it was the fault of parents who made those decisions, not the U.S. government.
He also said the girl's openness in raising such an issue directly with the president's wife reflected a broader comfort level. "Illegal immigrants march in front of the TV cameras, give interviews to newspapers and lobby in the halls of Congress and nothing happens to them," he said.
Krikorian isn't advocating for any government action based on the girl's comments, however. "Of all the people they need to arrest, starting with this second-grader's mom is probably not the place to go."
The chief of staff for Montgomery County Public Schools, Brian Edwards, said Wednesday that federal law prohibited schools from asking about children's immigration status. "The child will continue to attend New Hampshire Estates and receive a top-quality education," he said.
Michelle Obama's staff didn't issue a statement or respond to questions.
School Principal Jane Litchko said that 81 percent of her school was at the poverty level, with a heavily international population that was 65 percent Hispanic, but that the school nevertheless had "some of the highest test scores in the county. I think that's the story."
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