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A landmark case ensuring education to undocumented children turns 40

A group of Texas Hispanic parents fought for their children’s right to attend public school. The Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe ruled in their favor. “The right to a basic education is a fundamental part of democracy," says historian Sonia Hernandez.
Nursery school playground at the Robstown camp, Texas, Jan. 1942.
Nursery school playground at the Farm Security Administration Robstown camp, Texas, Jan. 1942, a labor camp for migrant farmworker families.Arthur Rothstein / Library of Congress

This week marks the 40th anniversary of a court case that affected thousands of schoolchildren. Yet it's one that most Americans likely don't know about.

In the 1970s, a group of Texas parents who lacked legal immigration status risked deportation to fight for their children’s right to attend public school. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which on June 15, 1982, ruled in favor of the parents and their children.

Plyler v. Doe ensured that children living in the U.S. without legal immigration documentation could access a basic education and lead more productive lives. It also paved the way for young immigrants to become active in efforts to demand legal pathways for children who have spent most of their lives in the U.S., such as the DREAM Act and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.

Alfredo Lopez was in elementary school in Tyler, Texas, in 1977, when his parents came to pick him up at school earlier than usual. “All I can remember is that we were sent home one day,” he told American Public Media in 2017. “And they said we couldn’t come back to school.”

In 1975, Texas had passed a statute allowing local school districts to deny enrollment to children who were not legally admitted to the country. Two years later, the Tyler Independent School District decided that it would charge annual tuition for undocumented students like Lopez. At $1,000 per student, this was far beyond the reach of undocumented families.

'Heavy weight on my shoulders'

Backed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), four families agreed to sue the Tyler school district, then headed by Superintendent James Plyler. While a judge allowed the families to present their case under the pseudonym of “Doe,” the parents were required to testify in open court. This was risky; on the day that they testified, the Lopez family drove to court with their car packed with their possessions, because they were afraid that they might be deported on the spot.

“When these families came forward to challenge the law, there was a real danger that people could find out their identities and harass them,” said Peter Roos, former national director of education litigation for MALDEF. To avoid media attention, the judge scheduled the parents’ testimony at the unheard-of hour of 6 a.m. 

In 1978, the federal district judge found that Texas’ law was unconstitutional, and this ruling was upheld by an appeals court in 1980.

By 1981, Peter Roos was part of the team that argued the Plyler case before the Supreme Court. “The pressure was tremendous,” he recalled. “I was confident in our case, but there was a sense that if we lost, other states would pass laws like Texas. So the outcome could affect millions of kids, and that was a heavy weight on my shoulders.”

The high court sided (5-4) with the Mexican American families in June 1982. “By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions,” Justice William Brennan wrote in the majority opinion, “and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our nation.”

The court found that undocumented children were entitled to Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, so Texas could not deny them access to K-12 public education.

'A firm foundation'

Ironically, even the losing party in this landmark decision came to believe that the case was decided correctly. In 2007, former Tyler school district superintendent James Plyler told Education Week, “I’m glad we lost the Hispanic (court case), so that those kids could get educated.” By then, his son had married a woman of Mexican descent, and Plyler himself had Latino grandchildren.

The late legal scholar Michael Olivas, who wrote a book about the Plyler case, considered it the pre-eminent decision in immigration law. “This case is the high-water mark for immigrant rights,” Olivas said in 2017. “It was courageous and strategic. Winning is one thing, but it’s not static. It has to be fought for, it has to be defended, re-conceptualized and re-applied.”

Other legal experts and educators say that the Plyler case remains important and relevant today.

“Plyler set a firm foundation, a baseline, of rights protections for undocumented young people,” said Roberto G. Gonzales, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Its significance, in part, is that it allows undocumented children from Day One to be integrated into the legal framework of this country. They not only get an education, but they learn the culture and values of this country and are integrated into the fabric of their communities.”

In 2019, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that there were 133,000 undocumented children (ages 3-17) in Texas. Nationwide, the Pew Center has reported that there are roughly 675,000 undocumented children. 

Yet the Plyler case has limitations, Gonzales noted. Because the decision applied only to students up through the 12th grade, undocumented youth face an uncertain future after that. “As these kids get older, they come in close contact with the limits of their sense of belonging.” Undocumented youth in some states do not qualify for in-state college tuition, for example. In some states, they can get drivers’ licenses; in others, they cannot. 

According to Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, the Plyler decision is “well-established law.” 

That has not stopped some states from attempting to enact measures limiting undocumented children’s access to education. In 1994 California voters passed Proposition 187, which would have denied nearly all state services to those who lack legal immigration status, and in 2011, Alabama passed HB 56, which would have permitted officials to check the immigration status of students. Key provisions of these two measures were later struck down by the courts.

More recently, in May of this year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that he would like to re-visit the Plyler case by potentially launching a challenge to it.

MALDEF’s Saenz said that any such effort would be unlikely to succeed. He pointed out that Plyler (unlike Roe v. Wade) has been incorporated into a federal statute.

“Abbott’s comments really amount to a dog-whistle to his base during his re-election campaign. Children engender great sympathy with the public; even Trump had to stop separating families because of the outrage it generated," said Saenz. "I do not think the governor really wants all these kids out of schools, it is simply bad politics, and bad policy.”

Sonia Hernandez, associate professor of history at Texas A&M University said it’s important to view the Plyler case within a broader historical context. “To be honest, not many of my students have heard of it. If a student does not take Mexican American studies or an ethnic studies program, they will probably not get this taught to them — which speaks to the urgency of why we should continue to approach history in a very inclusive way.”

There is a rich history of Mexican American activism centered around education that is still relatively unknown outside academia, Hernandez said. “Not knowing about cases like Plyler is a reflection of how limited our public school curriculums are.” 

“The legacy and future of Plyer should concern us all,” Hernandez added. “The right to a basic education is a fundamental part of democracy.”

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