As of 2008, 4 million U.S.-born Hispanic children had at least one parent who was an illegal immigrant, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The number is growing, with 300,000 to 400,000 children born to illegal immigrants each year, said Jeffrey S. Passel, a senior demographer at the center, who said that families are often neglected in the immigration debate.
Almost half of the households of undocumented immigrants include couples with children, a much larger percentage than households of those born in the United States.
At her school Wednesday, the second-grader told the first lady, "My mom doesn't have any papers," and she asked why the president was "taking away everybody that doesn't have papers."
The remarks, broadcast on TV and the Internet, drew empathy from the girl's community, where people picking up students Thursday at New Hampshire Estates Elementary School said she gave voice to familiar anxieties.
"The children have seen with their own eyes the deportation of parents," said Julia Aparicia, a native of El Salvador, who said she is a legal resident. She was picking up a 4-year-old girl she cares for. "That's the fear of the children. It's the fear of all of us."
New Hampshire Estates has a diverse population of 410 students from prekindergarten and Head Start through second grade. Two-thirds of the students are Hispanic, and about two-thirds of all students are learning English as a second language. Eighty-one percent of all students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
The girl's remarks provided fodder for both sides of the immigration reform debate.
"I think it helps us immensely," said U.S. Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has pushed for more protections for families of mixed status. "It really synthesizes in 20 words or less the need for comprehensive immigration reform."
Gutierrez, who has called for a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, said he would like to see a moratorium on deportation of parents of U.S. citizens. "Little girls in second grade should be worried about how many dolls they have or what song they're going to sing, not whether the government is going to deport their mom."
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls, said the girl's questions highlight the need for immigration reform that would reduce the number of mixed-status families by making it more difficult for the parents to live in the United States.
"If the parents had been unable to illegally settle here, then you wouldn't have this situation," he said, adding that the girl's exchange with Obama shows that undocumented immigrants live in the United States more openly than many people think.
But the high-profile context of the girl's comments will make her family too well known to deport, Krikorian said. "This kid has basically guaranteed that her mother is not going to be deported under any circumstances."
Children born to illegal immigrants in the United States automatically are granted citizenship. Some critics have called for a constitutional amendment that would end that practice.
Although U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not keep track of children left behind by those deported, about 100,000 children in the United States saw a parent deported between 1997 and 2007, said Laura Vazquez with the National Council of La Raza. Often, when one parent is deported, the other stays in the country to raise the children. Still, she said, "there is a strong economic impact on the family when one is deported."
There is also a psychological impact, according to studies that found children of deportees are more emotionally unstable and less likely to be financially or academically successful.