A Scholar’s Look at MALDEF’s Role in Plyler v. Doe

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 06, 2007 1 min read
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For the 25th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe--which obligated public schools to enroll children regardless of their immigration status--I spent three days last month reporting in Tyler, Texas, where the case originated. The ruling was issued on June 15, 1982.

I relished the opportunity to step back in history and interview residents of Tyler about their memories of the case. I talked with four residents who are natives of Mexico and, as undocumented children, were some of the plaintiffs. I also spoke with James Plyler, the former superintendent of Tyler schools, whose name is on the case; John C. Hardy, the lawyer who, at age 32, argued the Tyler side of the case at the U.S. Supreme Court; and Michael McAndrew, an advocate of Hispanic immigrants at the time of the case. My story about the impact of the Plyler ruling and the immigration debate in present-day Tyler was published this week.

I was focused on Tyler, so I never interviewed Peter Roos, who in the late 1970s and early 1980s worked for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed the complaint in a federal court in Texas that led to the case. Mr. Roos represented the plaintiffs in Plyler v. Doe.

It turns out that Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston, has written a scholarly chapter about Plyler v. Doe, in a 2005 book called Immigration Stories, that provides a lot of details about MALDEF’s perspective in the case. Mr. Olivas writes: “MALDEF had carefully selected Tyler as the perfect federal venue for arguing its case: progressive judge, sympathetic clients, a rural area where the media glare would not be as great.” And in looking back at how MALDEF was able to win the case, Mr. Olivas observes: "...good fortune appeared to have intervened at all the key times...”

Also see my earlier post, “A Foundation Magazine Looks Back 25 Years to Plyler v. Doe.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.