05/22/2010 05:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Education of Michelle Obama

The visit of First Lady Michelle Obama and Mexican First Lady Margarita Zavala to a Maryland Elementary school serving large numbers of immigrant children offers the world an important teaching moment. As Peter Baker of the New York Times reported, during the course of the First Ladies' visit, "a little girl raised her hand. 'My Mom, the girl started hesitantly, 'she says that Barak Obama is taking everybody away that doesn't have papers.'" First Lady Michelle Obama replied, "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 papers," the youngster insisted. Quick on her feet, Mrs. Obama shifted the topic to congressional gridlock, "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 that happens."

There are three important lessons relevant to this teaching moment.

First, unauthorized immigration has become the elephant in the (class)room. Our country, the premier country of immigration in the world (at approximately 40 million, we now have three times the number of immigrants as the second largest country of immigration in the world, the Russian Federation) has less than five percent of the world's population, yet we now have approximately 20 percent of the entire population of illegal immigrants on the planet. The rate of unauthorized immigration is at an all time high. Nearly one‐third of the immigrant population of the United States is now undocumented, by far the largest number (and proportion) in U.S. history. In total, the number is approximately 12 million unauthorized persons.

Second, the large scale migration of the last two generations has created a powerful "demographic echo." The children of immigrants are now the fastest‐growing sector of the child population in the United States. More than 80 percent of the population growth over the next generation will be via migration -the vast majority will be U.S. born citizen children of immigrants. Of the approximately 16 million immigrant-origin children in the U.S. some four million are citizen children of unauthorized immigrants and another near 2 million children are in the United States as undocumented immigrants having arrived often in early childhood.

Third, the children of unauthorized immigrants are the canaries in the mine. Research suggests they face huge obstacles in terms of their academic performance, mental health, and future well-being. The sense of safety and security essential to foster a healthy family system is unattainable to millions of children who face a pervasive sense of fear driven by the threat of having a parent apprehended and deported. These children live behind a dam of silence. A culture of fear defines the experiences of those living in households without papers. Imagine the stress it took for our valiant Maryland elementary school youngster to break the dam of silence to share with one of the country's most powerful listeners her family's deepest secret.

In the current political climate, the tealeaves do not bode well for a comprehensive immigration reform overhaul. If we are unable to solve the current immigration impasse, the United States will pay a high price in the currency of social cohesion, labor market and societal disruption, and our moral standing in the world. Yet that price will pale in comparison to the damage done to our youngest, newest Americans. The preponderance of evidence shows that immigrant youth, American in identity and spirit if not always on paper, will grow up in our midst. We can do the right thing and give them a fair shot at becoming full members of the only family they really know and love: the American family who must, however ambivalently, embrace them. What our courageous Maryland second grader was really asking was for the First American family, Barack and Michelle Obama, to finally embrace her family.