Friday, May 21, 2010


There’s little chance that the encounter first ladies Michelle Obama and Margarita Zavala had with a second-grader on Wednesday was coincidental.

The timing was just a few hours before President Obama delivered his “can’t-we-all-get-along” pitch for comprehensive immigration reform and the penultimate comment from the little girl was made in a schoolhouse where blacks and whites combined are a minority of the student body.

New Hampshire Estates Elementary School, where the exchange occurred, has a student body that is 57.8 percent Hispanic, 12.2 percent Asian/Pacific Islander and 0.5 percent American Indian/Alaska Native, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers website.

The Clinton administration passed off immigration reform to the Bush administration, which then lobbed to the Obama White House. (Apologies for the sports analogies, but it is NBA playoffs time.)

So what have we wrought?

Exchanges like this:

Second-grader: “My mom said … Barack Obama is going to take away everybody that doesn’t have papers.”

Mrs. 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.”

Second-grader: “But my mom doesn’t have any.”

Mrs. Obama: “Well, we have to work on that, we have to fix that and everybody’s got to work together in Congress to make sure that happens. That’s right.”

That the little sweetheart’s mom “doesn’t have any” papers is telling. When it comes to carrying identification, the rule of thumb is don’t leave home without them.

On your person: driver’s license or non-driver’s identification card, school ID or work ID. In a safe place: birth certificate, marriage license, Social Security card, welfare card, passport. Many of us go a step further and have a photo embedded in our credit cards.

That’s because if police pull you over or stop you on the street, you have to prove who you are and who you are not. (Though thank the heavens this is America and not South Africa.)

Arizonans grew sick and tired of anybody and everybody waltzing into their state without permission and without papers.

They were patient, waiting on Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush and then Barack Obama to enforce laws already on the books. Heck, even the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks failed to sound all the alarms. Now, nearly nine years later, thumbs are still being twiddled in Washington.

Arizonans took matters into their own hands.

In April, their governor signed legislation that, among other things, makes a state criminal offense of anyone who fails to carry immigration documents - or “the right kind of papers,” as Mrs. Obama said.

The law doesn’t take effect until this summer, which puts everyone on notice to get their house of papers in order.

Before that happens, the House and the Senate are expected to tackle immigration reform (hallelujah). That prospect, on the heels of the Arizona’s decisive measure, has Hispanics up in arms. But they shouldn’t be.

The law isn’t kin to Jim Crow. There will be no Hispanics-only drinking fountains or back-of-the-bus policies, thanks to leading civil-rights activists, including Cesar Chavez and Rosa Parks.

But the law is the law.

Public schools send teens home when they don’t have their ID cards, and nobody’s questioning that silly policy. I mean, isn’t it downright stupid for a teacher or coach to call a child by name and then punish her because she doesn’t have her school photo ID strung around her neck?

There’s no discounting the conundrum the little girl pointed out to Mrs. Obama.

It kind of makes you wonder: If the little girl’s mom “doesn’t have any” papers, how do school authorities know that’s her mom?

Deborah Simmons can be reached at

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