Child's Immigration Question Raises Dilemma

A second-grader brought the immigration debate to center stage Wednesday when she told the first lady her mom doesn't have immigration papers. What legal ramifications could follow from the innocuous comment blurted out by the young girl? To find out, Robert Siegel talks to Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

When it comes to photo op outing by the first lady, hosting her Mexican counterpart, you would think that it can't get less controversial than a second-grade classroom - yesterday, not so.

There was Michelle Obama with the first lady of Mexico at a suburban Maryland elementary school. One second-grader told the first lady, and I quote, "My Mom says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesnt have papers."

First Lady MICHELLE OBAMA: Yeah, well, thats something that we have to work on, right, to make sure that people can be here with the right kind of papers, right? Thats exactly right.

Unidentified Child: No paper.

First Lady OBAMA: Yeah, well, we have to...

SIEGEL: And then, you can barely hear it but the second-grader says, but my mom doesnt have papers. And Mrs. Obama says to that: We have to work on that, we have to fix that, everybody has to work together in Congress to make sure that happens.

It was an awkward political moment caught on tape. The school principal is not identifying the student, but the video is on YouTube. So what happens now? What, if anything, might happen to this girl's mother?

Well, joining us to talk about the legal issues surrounding the incident is Crystal Williams, who is executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Welcome to the program.

Ms. CRYSTAL WILLIAMS (Executive Director, American Immigration Lawyers Association): Thank you.

SIEGEL: What's the school's responsibility in this case?

Ms. WILLIAMS: The school's responsibility is to educate that child. The school has no other responsibilities. It's not required to turn the child or her mother in. It's not required to do anything by way of enforcing immigration laws. Its mission is to educate children, and that's what it's required to do here.

SIEGEL: We should add here, it's perfectly possible that this girl is legally here, could be a citizen of the United States even though her mother, she says, doesn't have papers. What if there's some consent form signed by that parent at the school, something that's been required of her, is the school obliged to verify that the person signing that form is doing so completely legally?

Ms. WILLIAMS: In the state of Maryland, really in every state except possibly Arizona, the school has no obligation to pursue anybody's legal immigration status. And in fact, immigration status is something that schools are obligated not to look at under a 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler versus Doe.

SIEGEL: What about ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement? Do they have an obligation to, now that they've been given a lead on the nation's media and on YouTube, do they have an obligation to go after this kid's mother?

Ms. WILLIAMS: ICE could go after this kid's mother, but they don't have an obligation to do it. They have something called prosecutorial discretion, police discretion. They can choose, for whatever variety of reasons, and there's a lot of good reasons here, not to pursue any given lead or any given case.

SIEGEL: All of this gets to an awkward situation for many Americans. We know that there are several million people living in the country and have no legal basis for doing so. On the other hand and that may disturb a great many people. The same people, though, are not rushing to turn in the gardener or the person who lives down the block or their child's friends at schools' parent or whatever. But what if other people did? What if people said, hey, there's a kid in the school, my daughter's class, the mother doesn't belong here? If they went to ICE, would ICE be obliged to act on it?

Ms. WILLIAMS: In fact, that happens all the time. And ICE, again, is not obliged to act on any lead. ICE prioritizes. They have to. They have limited resources. They prioritize what kinds of things they will pursue and what kinds of things they won't. At the top of their priority list is people who have committed serious crimes. Now, this would not be a lead for somebody who has committed serious crimes.

At the bottom of their list would be somebody who has U.S. citizen children, who is living their lives in the United States quietly and just trying to make a better life for their families.

SIEGEL: Well, Crystal Williams, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And Crystal Williams is executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

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