OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A Republican member in the Oklahoma House is suggesting that tens of thousands of non-English speaking students in public schools be turned over to U.S. immigration officials as cost-saving measure in the cash-strapped state.
Broken Arrow Republican Rep. Mike Ritze told News9 in an interview Wednesday that the newly created Republican Platform Caucus believes the state could save $60 million if Oklahoma would identify what the caucus believes is 82,000 non-English speaking students "and then turn them over" to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine whether they are citizens.
It's unclear from the segment if he was referring to turning over the students' names or rounding up the children. 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.
Ritze also questioned whether the state should have to educate children who aren't citizens, although a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision holds states cannot deny students a free public education based on their immigration status. Also, the United States also has no official language.
Ritze wasn't at the Capitol on Thursday and didn't reply to phone messages or emails, but several Republican members, including members of the Republican Platform Caucus, quickly distanced themselves from Ritze's comments.
"On this subject of deporting students, that is not a position that we support," said Rep. Chuck Strohm, a Republican from Jenks and the co-chairman of the caucus, which he says has between 15 and 20 members.
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."
Oklahoma schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, a Republican, said Ritze's suggestion was "utterly shameful."
"There is no benefit to floating outrageous ideas that seek to punish kids," Hofmeister said in a statement.
House Floor Leader Rep. Jon Echols also downplayed Ritze's idea.
"I have no desire to target (English as a second language) students," said Echols, a Republican from Oklahoma City. "That's a bad idea."
Ryan Kiesel, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, described the caucus' suggestion as "disgustingly inhumane."
A conservative state with strong Republican majorities in the House and Senate, Oklahoma has passed tough anti-immigration laws before. A bill approved in 2007 and signed by then-Gov. Brad Henry, a Democrat, made it a felony to help those living in the U.S. illegally, required law enforcement to check the citizenship status of people arrested and state agencies to inquire about a person's immigration status before issuing benefits. A judge later threw out much of the law.
Oklahoma faces an $878 million budget gap for next year, and lawmakers are wrangling over how to raise new money or cut spending.