May 18, 2017 – The state of Oklahoma is facing one of the worst budget crises in its history in the form of a nearly $900 million dollar budget shortfall. Legislators and the governor are scrambling to figure out how to get the state out of the red. But one state representative last week offered a plan that is as cruel as it is unconstitutional: Round up tens of thousands of the state’s students who speak English as a second language, hand them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and deport them if they’re undocumented.
“Identify them and then turn them over to ICE to see if they truly are citizens,” Rep. Mike Ritze, a member of the Republican Platform Caucus, told a local news station. “Do we really have to educate non-citizens?”
Aside from the overall inhumanity of Ritze’s “plan,” he poses a question that deserves an answer: Do public schools in the United States have to educate noncitizens? The answer is an unqualified yes.
In 1982, the Supreme Court decided Plyler v. Doe. The question before the justices was whether the state of Texas could deny undocumented students the right to a free public education that U.S. citizens and legally admitted immigrants received. Under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, wrote Justice William Brennan, the state of Texas could not do so. The 14th Amendment, he explained, “is not confined to the protection of citizens” and ensures that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” That included a free public education.
But beyond the unconstitutionality of Ritze’s plan, we should take a moment to discuss why the state’s Republican superintendent of schools, Joy Hofmeister, called it “utterly shameful,” and why his caucus members have distanced themselves from his plan.
First off, children’s grasp of English has absolutely nothing to with their immigration status. Second, there is no way to carry out such a plan without resorting to racial profiling. According to Ben Felder of The Oklahoman, over half of the student body of Oklahoma City Public Schools is Hispanic, and such a plan would make a majority of the students feel like second-class citizens. It’s not far-fetched to fear that Hispanic and Latino kids would go to class afraid that if they don’t speak English up to an arbitrary standard that they would fall under the scrutiny of the school, their local police department, and federal immigration authorities. And third, and most importantly, these are kids we’re talking about. They deserve protection and an education, not fear and stigma.
“There is no benefit to floating outrageous ideas that seek to punish kids,” Hofmeister said. We agree. Immigration authority has no place in our schools. Racial profiling has no place in our schools. At a time in our nation’s history when xenophobia and nationalism are on the rise, it is crucial that students and parents know that they and their children are protected and valued.
And we’ll be there to assure that they are.
Ryan Kiesel, Executive Director, ACLU of Oklahoma