Republicans rebuke Oklahoma rep's proposal to turn kids over to ICE

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Story highlights

  • "Do we really have to educate non-citizens?" one lawmaker asks
  • Superintendent: "We shouldn't try to fix the budget hole by threatening children"

(CNN)Fellow Republicans are distancing themselves from an Oklahoma lawmaker's proposed solution to state budget problems: turning kids who are learning English over to immigration authorities.

An idea that state Rep. Mike Ritze floated this week in an interview with a local news station drew swift rebukes from members of his own party. It spurred sharp criticism from immigrant rights advocates. And it inspired a flurry of negative comments on his Facebook page.
The state's top school official, who's also a Republican, quickly decried the idea.
    "We shouldn't try to fix the budget hole by threatening children," Oklahoma state schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said on Twitter. "We are better than that."
    Rep. Jon Echols, the state House majority leader, told CNN on Friday that targeting students taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes isn't the right approach.
    "It's a bad idea," he said.

    The proposal

    Ritze, a doctor from the Tulsa suburb of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, told KWTV this week that he and a group of Republican lawmakers had come up with a number of ways to fill a hole in their state's budget without raising taxes.
    One way to save $60 million, he said, would be looking at the tens of thousands of students in the state who don't speak English.
    "Identify them and then turn them over to ICE to see if they truly are citizens," Ritze said. "Do we really have to educate non-citizens?"
    The short answer: yes.

    Why it won't happen

    A 1982 Supreme Court decision makes it clear that public schools must serve all students equally, regardless of immigration status.
    Plyler v. Doe struck down a Texas statute denying public education funds for children who were in the United States illegally. The court ruled that Texas' statute violated the 14th Amendment, which says no state should deny anyone in its territory "the equal protection of the laws."
    The Department of Homeland Security also has a policy stating that operations at schools and other designated sensitive locations "should generally be avoided."

    The response

    Several Republican lawmakers reached by CNN said they're not backing the proposal that Ritze floated.
    "I absolutely DO NOT support this idea," Rep. Chuck Strohm said in an email.
    Echols, the state House majority leader, cited the Supreme Court ruling and said officials are "required to offer an education to all students." And he noted that students who are learning English could be citizens.
    "Just because you're an ESL student doesn't mean you're automatically a non-citizen," he said.
    Oklahoma's branch of the ACLU was quick to condemn Ritze's comments.
    "This proposal might be laughable," executive director Ryan Kiesel said, "if it weren't made at the expense of real human beings, common decency, and the United States Constitution."
    Ritze's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
    A steady stream of negative posts have been appearing on the state lawmaker's Facebook page as word of the proposal spreads.
    On Friday, critics responded to Ritze's post wishing friends a "beautiful and blessed" Mother's Day.
    "So many mothers out there who have struggled to give their children a better life are going to spend this Sunday wondering if ICE will be coming for their child," one post said.

    Not the first time

    The cost of education isn't a new flashpoint in the immigration debate.
    Immigrant and civil rights organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union, say education is a fundamental right that officials can't take away. Organizations that advocate for stricter immigration enforcement, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform, say programs for students with limited English proficiency are a burden that taxpayers shouldn't be forced to shoulder.
    This isn't the first time a lawmaker has suggested using schools as a way to crack down on illegal immigration.
    Alabama legislators passed a controversial law in 2011 that required officials to check the immigration status of children in public schools. Courts blocked that portion of the law. But the measure still fueled widespread fear and caused a spike in absences and withdrawals among Hispanic students.
    In recent months, with threats of increased immigration enforcement looming, school districts around the country have pledged to protect undocumented students.
    About 50,000 children enrolled in Oklahoma's schools are designated as "English learners," according to state officials.
    English learners make up nearly 10% of the student population nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Education. More than 4.8 million students enrolled in grades K-12 in the United States during the 2014-2015 school year were were identified as "English learners."
    In 2014, about 725,000 students enrolled in grades K-12 in the United States -- 1.3% of all students enrolled -- were unauthorized immigrants, according to Pew Research Center estimates based on government data.