Supreme Court Immigration Ruling Resonates 30 Years Later

By Mark Walsh — June 12, 2012 4 min read
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Thirty years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a state may not deny access to a basic public education to any child, whether that child is present in the country legally or not. The court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe clearly has fresh resonance today, when several states have enacted tough immigration laws.

Plyler represents the best of our collective ideals as a nation,” Thomas E. Perez, the assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, said at an event Monday to commemorate the decision. “Although countless children, and our country as a whole, have directly benefited from Plyler‘s holding, the past year has shown us that we still have far to travel.”

Perez, speaking at the Washington event organized by the American Civil Liberties Union, was referring to the controversial 2011 Alabama immigration law that requires schools to gather information about the immigration and citizenship status of children when they enroll, as well as to some more isolated practices at schools in other states.

Plyler is the law of the land,” Perez added. “Regrettably, we need to continue to remind institutions it is the law of the land.”

In the Plyler decision, issued June 15, 1982, the high court ruled 5-4 that it violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment for the state of Texas to withhold funds from school districts for the education of undocumented immigrant children.

“By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our nation,” Justice William J. Brennan Jr. wrote for the majority. (Education Week‘s Mary Ann Zehr visited Tyler, Texas, around the time of the 25th anniversary of the Plyler decision.)

In May 2011, Perez and Russlyn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education, sent a “dear colleague” letter to educators reminding them of the legal mandates of Plyler and federal civil rights laws with respect to enrolling children.

Alabama’s law requires public schools to “determine whether the student enrolling in public school was born outside the jurisdiction of the United States or is the child of an alien not lawfully present in the United States.”

The schools provision, known as Section 28, requires students or their parents to present an original birth certificate at the time of enrollment. For those who cannot present proper documentation, schools are required to assume they are aliens “unlawfully present” in the United States. The measure requires schools to maintain statistics about the numbers of such students.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, has enjoined the provision from taking effect, and it heard arguments in March in lawsuits by the federal government and private parties challenging the Alabama law, which has other immigration provisions.

The state of Alabama has defended its law, arguing in a court brief that “Section 28 imposes no consequences on any student or parent for failing to comply with it—let alone consequences based on immigration status or any other status. And the record is undisputed that Alabama schools remain open under Section 28 to all children regardless of their immigration status (or their parents’ status).”

Defenders of the law were not part of the ACLU panel discussion on Monday, which included advocates, an Alabama educator, and a community organizer.

Alabama’s “unprecedented law is anti-immigrant, anti-child, and anti-education—and thus anti-Plyler,” said Laura Murphy, the director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office and the moderator of the panel.

The Justice Department’s Perez and the Education Department’s Ali emphasized that federal officials remain active in Alabama, working with school administrators to counter the mass departures of students, some undocumented but many who are U.S. citizens.

“We continue to have boots on the ground,” said Perez. “Our goal is to ensure that every student is enrolled.”

William Lawrence, the principal of Foley Elementary School in Foley, Ala., noted that in the first nine days after the Alabama law was adopted, his school experience 134 absences, and 64 of his school’s 1,200 students withdrew and moved out of state.

There was an intense climate of fear caused by the law, including rumors such as “the immigration buses are coming to get us,” Lawrence said. Foley Elementary and the immigration law are the focus of this story by Lesli A. Maxwell in Education Week‘s Diplomas Count report.

Thomas A. Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, based in Los Angeles, said the Plyler decision was his organization’s proudest achievement.

“The case deserves far more attention that it receives,” both among the general public and in law schools, Saenz said.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.