Equity & Diversity Q&A

A Look Back at How Undocumented Children Won the Right to Attend U.S. Schools

By Corey Mitchell — June 19, 2020 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling blocking the Trump administration’s attempt to dismantle a federal program protecting immigrants brought to the United States as children coincides with the anniversary of a historic ruling on the education for immigrant students.

This week marks the 38th anniversary of Plyler v. Doe, the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared undocumented children are entitled to receive a free public education from kindergarten through 12th grade.

The case has its origins in Tyler, a northeast Texas city, where municipal leaders feared their school system would become overrun with immigrant families and students. In 1977, to curb school enrollment, the school board demanded that undocumented students pay $1,000 per year in tuition because were not “legally admitted” to the United States.

The Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund sued the district, arguing that the policy essentially barred immigrant students from school, because few of their families could afford the fee.

As director of education litigation at MALDEF, attorney Peter Roos filed a motion to block the district from denying enrollment to the children as the Plyler case winded through years of appeals before reaching the Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision, the court found that the Tyler schools violated the “equal protection clause” of the 14th amendment when it refused to educate children because of their immigration status. The case also struck down a Texas law that denied education funding for undocumented children. The case was decided together with Texas v. Certain Named and Unnamed Alien Children.

Roos talked with Education Week recently about his recollections about Plyler v. Doe and the relevance of the case today. The questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Education Week: When you reflect on the importance of Plyler v. Doe, what comes to mind?

Roos: It serves as the foundation of the nation’s obligation to provide an education for undocumented students. At the time, I felt pretty much that if I lost the case, that not only would we lose Texas, but that other states with similar xenophobic inclinations or rationale would be inclined to follow a court rule that undocumented students didn’t have a right to schooling. There would probably have been a number of states that would have denied it, so millions of kids, I think, have a right to go to school because of Plyler.

Education Week: Are there parallels between Plyler v. Doe and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that was the focus of this week’s Supreme Court ruling?

Roos: The DACA definition of children pretty much mirrors the definition of the kids in Plyler. You generally had to be brought here as a child, so thus not have any guilt in crossing the border. You were here as an innocent child. You’ve been here for a while and you’ve had a fair amount of success, so that the factors that led the court to say, “We’re going to uphold the rights of undocumented kids to go to school,” are some of the same—in many ways are the same—conditions that are used to define DACA students, but the underlying foundational law is somewhat different. DACA is really a condition to the right to employment.

Education Week: How do you address criticism of the Plyler decision?

Roos: Maybe there is a sense that as long as you have free education, [immigrants] are going to keep on coming because they want to educate their children. The evidence was really very, very clear that while certainly the plaintiffs in these cases wanted to have their kids educated, they were not coming here for education. They came here because of employment opportunities. But even among people who are somewhat skeptical of undocumented immigration, you’d have a very hard time saying that their kids shouldn’t be provided an education. To have millions of kids on the street not going to school, you’d be taking away the foundational elements for success in this country.

Related Reading

Civil Rights Advocates to DeVos: Make it Clear Educators Can’t Report Students to ICE

Educators and Advocates Brace for Harsher Stance on Immigration Under Trump

The Supreme Court’s Decision in Plyler v. Doe

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