Republicans in the Oklahoma state legislature have a challenge on their hands: figuring out how to address a gaping $900 million hole in the state budget without raising taxes.
Some lawmakers have proposed firing nonessential college employees. Others want to drop a film tax credit, saving the state as much as $5 million.
Republican Rep. Mike Ritze told CBS affiliate KWTV that he has another proposal in mind: Rounding up the state’s 82,000 non-English-speaking students and handing them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“Identify them and then turn them over to ICE to see if they truly are citizens — and do we really have to educate noncitizens?” Ritze asked.
The lawmaker disagrees with the idea that the state should be responsible for educating children who aren’t citizens, though a 1982 Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe, actually prohibits states from denying education to undocumented immigrants.
Still, Ritze told the station that the proposal — which faced immediate backlash and was called “utterly shameful” by the state schools superintendent — could save $60 million.
The Tulsa lawmaker, as the Associated Press notes, didn’t specify whether he wants to merely hand over thousands of names to federal authorities, or whether he’d prefer to see the state round up the individuals — a task that presumably would come with a substantial price tag.
“The State Department of Education said there are actually about 50,000 English learners in pre-K through 12th grade in Oklahoma public schools, but many of those students could be U.S. citizens,” according to the AP.
Pew Research Center estimates that there were 95,000 unauthorized immigrants living in Oklahoma in 2014, the latest year of available data.
As The Washington Post reported earlier this year: “Previously, the Obama administration prioritized the deportation of people who were violent offenders or had ties to criminal gangs. Trump’s executive order on Jan. 25 expanded priorities to include any undocumented immigrants who had been convicted of a criminal offense.”
Ritze did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment.
His controversial proposal was included on a broader list of budget-related suggestions from the Republican Platform Caucus in Oklahoma, according to KWTV News 9.
But the plan has been slammed by civil liberties advocates and others — including members of Ritze’s own party.
The AP reported that some members of the Republican Platform Caucus “quickly distanced themselves from Ritze’s comments.”
Among them: Rep. Chuck Strohm, the co-chairman of the Republican Platform Caucus, who said deporting students “is not a position that we support,” according to the AP.
Strohm said the caucus discussed the additional financial burden that students who require additional English instruction create, but never the idea of reporting students to ICE.
“This caught many of us by surprise, because that’s not the direction that we talked about,” he said.
House Floor Leader, Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City), called Ritze’s plan “a bad idea,” saying, “I have no desire to target ESL students,” according to the AP.
Schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, also a Republican, said “the suggestion that Oklahoma should fix its fiscal crisis by ‘rounding up’ non-English-speaking children is utterly shameful.
“The suggestion that Oklahoma should fix its fiscal crisis by ‘rounding up’ non-English-speaking children is utterly shameful. Our lawmakers face a very daunting task and time is running out, but surely there are better options than threatening kids. Investing in education – all the way from early childhood through high school – is an investment in our future. There is no benefit to floating outrageous ideas that seek to punish kids.”
Hofmeister, too, noted that the matter has already been decided by law, citing the landmark 1982 Supreme Court ruling.
The office of Gov. Mary Fallin (R) also pushed back on the plan.
“Oklahoma will not be rounding up non-English speaking students,” Michael McNutt, the governor’s communications director, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
He added: “Our state certainly supports encouraging ICE to apprehend and deport criminal illegal aliens. Governor Fallin is focused on working with legislative leaders to develop a budget for the 2018 fiscal year. Lawmakers have five legislative days to pass revenue-raising measures for the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.”
Ritze, who was elected in 2008, is a physician who has “delivered over 2,000 babies,” according to his Oklahoma legislature page.
“Mike is an ordained Southern Baptist Deacon and Sunday School teacher at Arrow Heights Baptist Church,” the page states. “Mike is a cancer survivor for over 37 years. He and Connie have served as medical missionaries to Mexico and Honduras.”
As news of the proposal spread, critics took to Ritze’s Facebook page to slam him.
Under newly posted photos of his grandson, comments quickly turned nasty.
“Does he speak English?” one person wrote.
Wrote another: “Are you sure he is legal or you going to have ICE ‘interview’ him to. Idiot.”
And there were more:
“What would you think if someone suggested having ICE round up this little baby? God, I hope you are not related to this sweet child.”
“You have some nerve posting pics of your grandson while also suggesting your state round up lots of defenseless children. And for what? Oh yes, to close the budget gap you created. Very Christian of you.”
“Why don’t we round up these kids and hand them over to ICE too? Since you think children should be handed over to ICE! You are a disgusting individual and a hate monger!”
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, labeled Ritze’s proposed money-saving technique as “disgustingly inhumane.”
In a statement, Kiesel said Republicans were using “political distraction” to hide the fact that the state’s legislature is a “far greater threat” to the safety of Oklahomans than undocumented children.
“The United States Supreme Court has ruled in Plyler v. Doe that all children living in this Nation are guaranteed the right to a public education,” the statement said. “The ACLU will not stand for any attempt to strip any student of that right, nor will we allow the Legislature to insert racial profiling or discriminatory stereotypes about non English speakers into our schools.”
“A government that threatens to turn children over to law enforcement to avoid educating them should alarm and outrage all Oklahomans,” the statement added. “Immigration authority has no place in our schools.”
This post has been updated.