Child's Question Prompts National Debate

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In Tell Me More's weekly parenting segment, we talk about the Maryland second grader who asked First Lady Michelle Obama about the president’s immigration policy. The exchange set off another round of debate about immigration reform, and what it is doing to families. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with Maryland state delegate Jolene Ivey, educator and author Rosie Molinary and Dr. Carola Suarez-Orozco, co-director of the immigration studies program at New York University.

TONY COX, host:

They say it takes a village to raise a child but maybe you need just a few moms in your corner. TELL ME MORE visits with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

It's a cliche that kids say the darndest things, but it's true. Consider the recent visit to a Maryland elementary school by first lady Michelle Obama. Thanks to a second-grade girl, about seven years old, what was meant to be a simple photo opportunity ended up instead turning a spotlight on the hottest of political hot buttons: Immigration.

Listen as the girl asked the first lady about whether the president is, as she put it, taking away people without papers.

Unidentified Child: My mom said that - I think that she says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn't have papers.

Ms. MICHELLE OBAMA: Yeah, well that's 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.

Unidentified Child: But my mom doesn't have papers.

Ms. OBAMA: Yeah. Well, we have...

COX: Now, you may have barely heard the young girl say: My mom doesn't have papers.

Let's turn to TELL ME MORE's Moms to talk about immigration and the children of immigrants. I'm joined by regular parenting contributor Jolene Ivey, a Maryland state legislator and a mom of five. Rosie Molinary, a freelance writer and educator who works with young Latina girls on issues of self-awareness and body image. And Professor Carola Suarez-Orozco, a professor of applied psychology and co-director of immigration studies at NYU. Moms, nice to have you with us again.

Ms. ROSIE MOLINARY (Writer): Thank you.

Professor CAROLA SUAREZ-OROZCO (Co-Director, Immigration Studies, New York University): Thank you.

State Representative JOLENE IVEY (Democrat, Maryland): Thanks, Tony.

COX: Jolene, let me come to you first because you are a Maryland state legislator, this is where this took place. As a mom, and then secondly as a state legislator, what did you make of that exchange?

St. Rep. IVEY: I think that it's so easy for people who are against immigrants' presence in this country to discount them and want them gone. But when you hear the voice of a young girl explaining what's really going on in her life, it's a lot harder to be that cold about it. I think most people who are here, who are immigrants, want to be here legally and we have just made the laws very difficult for them to adhere to.

COX: Let me turn to the professor. Carola, you wrote a blog post about this exchange between the first lady and the little girl. And you said, quote, "unauthorized immigration has become the elephant in the" - in parenthesis -"classroom." What did you mean?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: Well, there are four million children in this country right now living in mixed documentation homes, meaning that either they are undocumented or their mother or their father or a sibling is undocumented. About three-quarters of these children are actually legal citizen children. So it's very likely that this little girl is documented herself but she lives in daily fear that her mother could be deported.

Under the Bush administration in 2007, there was a very active movement of ICE deportations in workplaces and in homes. And children would literally go to school and their parents would disappear. And under the Obama administration that has, thankfully, stopped. But Obama is out enforcing with about a thousand deportations a day.

COX: So, Rosie, you work with young Latinas. I imagine that you hear of similar situations. What are these young women telling you?

Ms. MOLINARY: When I heard this young woman's story last week in the news, it reminded me of my girls, who will honestly share their situations. And I think, both as someone who cares for them and as a mom, you're telling that story what feels like really casually, and you never know who's listening to your stories. And so when I think about the situation, I think that these young people do live in fear.

They have just enough information to know that their family is in a tenuous situation, and not enough information to know whether or not they will ultimately be safe, what their family can do to obtain legal status here, or those sorts of things. And so there's a serious disenfranchisement that happens even at a really young age, at a time where other children don't have to worry about these things.

COX: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin, who is away this week.

I am joined by Jolene Ivey, Dr. Carola Suarez-Orozco and Rosie Molinary. We're talking about immigrant children.

Let me come to you, Jolene, because the little girl actually was interviewed after this incident. Her mother allowed her to be interviewed without their names being used. And the little girl said that she wants to go to the White House now, as a result of this experience. Is that a good idea?

St. Rep. IVEY: I think this family has been outed to the point where they're actually safer now than they were before. And whether you agree with that or disagree with that as being right, I believe it's true.

Now, we have a situation in Prince George's County. Our county is participating in something I really disagree with called Secure Communities, where if you are arrested for anything, even something as innocuous as selling phone cards out of your home, which is what happened to a young woman recently, you can be deported if you don't have your papers. And it just seems to me it's such a waste of resources. We need to focus on real crime, no matter who's committing it and get those people off the street.

COX: Let me come back to you, Carola, and ask this question. What would you suppose the conversation went like between this young girl and her mother, after this exchange with the first lady? What do you think the mother told her? What should she have told her?

Prof. SUAREZ-OROZCO: I imagine that her mother was surprised. Many families never tell the children about whether or not they're documented. But increasingly, because of the possibility of deportation, there have to be contingency plans: if I disappear, your aunt will be taking care of you. And increasingly, because of the news about Arizona, it's on the news every night. And so, I think it's on everybody's mind.

So probably the mother was appalled, scared, terrified, shocked and, at the same time, maybe she was proud of her daughter for having, you know, turned to the first lady, who is really the symbolic first mother of the country.

COX: Is there an age - and perhaps I'll come to you, Rosie, to ask this question, is there an age that would be appropriate to share something so important, so vital a piece of very personal family business with a child?

Ms. MOLINARY: I think it really depends on each child individually developmentally and where they are. But I do think that kids often give you an idea. They reveal what they want to know and what they're ready to know. And I think that that's a really important thing for parents to be aware of what sort of things they're being asked about and what sort of information they're ready for, and when you answer to give them the first of the basic information in that situation and then see how they respond to that and go from there.

COX: One last question for you, Carola, and it has to do with whether or not this incident really has impacted the overall debate about immigration and how families are affected and how they are treated and the government's role. What do you think this has done, if anything, in terms of impacting that discussion?

Prof. SAUREZ-OROZCO: Well, I hope it has impacted. I mean, you know, most of the time when the discussion goes on about immigration it's about adults and children of immigrants are the fastest growing population of children in the United States today. And I hope that this young girl helps us to remember that we need to be thinking about our policies, because these are growing up quickly and they're reaching adulthood without resolution.

COX: Professor Carola Suarez-Orozco is a professor of applied psychology and co-director of immigration studies at NYU. Rosie Molinary is focused on empowering young Latina girls and working with them on issues of self-awareness and body image. She joined us from Charlotte, North Carolina. Jolene Ivey is a regular TELL ME MORE parenting contributor. She joined from our studios here in Washington. Moms, thank you very much.

St. Rep. IVEY: Thanks, Tony.

Ms. MOLINARY: Thank you.

Prof. SAUREZ-OROZCO: Thank you.

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