Equity & Diversity

Amid Immigration Debate, Settled Ground

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 01, 2007 9 min read
Twenty-five years ago, the Plyler v. Doe case was first argued in Tyler, Texas. Now, amid debate about illegal immigration, some complain about undocumented Mexican men who often gather in a local parking lot for day labor.
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Illegal immigration is a divisive issue in this politically conservative East Texas community of 100,000, known by many locally as “The Rose Capital of America.”

Drawn by jobs in the rose fields and iron foundries, Mexican immigrants began settling here with their families in the 1970s. Hispanic children—citizens, legal residents, and illegal immigrants alike—now make up 34 percent of the 18,000-student Tyler school system.

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Case Touched Many Parts of Community

The tensions aren’t hard to spot. Letters to the Tyler Morning Telegraph rail against undocumented immigrants. Some residents complain about the undocumented Mexican men who regularly wait in a local parking lot for day labor.

Against that backdrop, the Tyler Independent School District this month will reach a milestone in the area of immigrants’ rights: the 25th anniversary of theU.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe, which barred Tyler—where the case originated—and other public school systems from charging tuition for undocumented children.

“I’m glad we lost the Hispanic [court case], so that those kids could get educated.” James Plyler, former superintendent of the Tyler public schools, talks with Mary Ann Zehr about his role in the case.

Since that 5-4 decision on June 15, 1982, public schools across the country have been obligated to enroll children regardless of their immigration status. In sharp contrast to the national upheaval over racial desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the immigration ruling became a quiet fact of life for educators in Tyler and elsewhere.

“Tyler is a very conservative town. If you conduct a poll—‘Should we pay for the education of illegal immigrants?’—people wouldn’t be for that,” said Andy Bergfeld, 36, the president of the Tyler school board. At the same time, he said, “we understand it’s our job to educate whoever the United States and Texas tells us to educate.”

National and Local Debate

The so far largely unheralded anniversary of the Plyler v. Doe decision comes at a time of renewed—and fierce—national debate over immigration, including a weighing of the contributions and costs to local governments and economies of undocumented immigrants and their children.

The United States has about 12 million undocumented immigrants—and 1.8 million of them are children, according to estimates by the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center. Lawmakers in Congress are currently debating the merits of a Senate bill, backed by President Bush, to overhaul the nation’s immigration system and provide a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

Both the Senate bill and a measure introduced in the House of Representatives include provisions for undocumented students who have graduated from U.S. schools and are pursuing higher education or military service to get legal status. Neither bill contains provisions that would restrict the precedent set by Plyler v. Doe.

Excerpts from Justice William J. Brennan’s majority opinion for the U.S. Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe, decided June 15, 1982, by a vote of 5-4.

“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.” “… [T]he record in no way supports the claim that exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the state.”

“It is difficult to understand precisely what the state hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime. It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the state, and the nation.”

The most recent direct challenge to that ruling at the federal level happened more than a decade ago, according to Michael A. Olivas, a law professor at the University of Houston. In 1996, U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., made an unsuccessful attempt to attach an amendment to federal legislation that would have allowed states to pass the kind of law that Texas enacted in 1975, which led to Plyler v. Doe.

A ballot measure approved in Arizona in 2004 partly rolled back the impact of the Plyler v. Doe ruling by denying undocumented adults who were getting a free basic education through the state’s K-12 system an opportunity to continue doing so, Mr. Olivas noted.

But a federal court threw out Proposition 187, a ballot measure approved by California voters in 1994 that sought to deny a K-12 education, among other public services, to undocumented immigrants.

“This is a well-settled law, and there have been no direct challenges that have been upheld,” Mr. Olivas said, “But it’s also important in today’s superheated environment to realize there are hundreds of indirect challenges.”

In his majority opinion a quarter-century ago, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan wrote that refusing to provide an education to the children of illegal immigrants would result in a “subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime.”

Excerpts from Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s dissenting opinion:

“I fully agree that it would be folly— and wrong—to tolerate creation of a segment of society made up of illiterate persons, many having a limited or no command of our language. However, the Constitution does not constitute us as ‘Platonic Guardians’ nor does it vest in this court the authority to strike down laws because they do not meet our standards of desirable social policy, ‘wisdom,’ or ‘common sense.’ ”

“The failure of enforcement of the immigration laws over more than a decade and the inherent difficulty and expense of sealing our vast borders have combined to create a grave socioeconomic dilemma. … However, it is not the function of the judiciary to provide ‘effective leadership’ simply because the political branches of government fail to do so.”

He went on to say, “It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the state, and the nation.”

But while the precedent may be settled, the debate has hardly vanished.

Nationally, Tom Horne, the superintendent of public instruction in Arizona, is a prominent educator who has complained publicly that his state shouldn’t have to pay to educate undocumented students.

“I think the federal government should pay for it,” he said. “You have a problem created by the federal government because they aren’t guarding the borders.”

Texas state Rep. Leo Berman, a Republican from Tyler, introduced legislation this year that sought to deny citizenship to children born in the United States to illegal immigrants and also aimed to deny them state services such as public education.

Listen to an interview with lawyer John C. Hardy.

Marcia Daughtry, the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Smith County, Texas, which includes Tyler, said that Hispanics—many of whom she suspects are undocumented—are “taking over” the community. “If we didn’t have to educate these kids, we wouldn’t have to build a new school for decades,” she said, an analysis the school district rejects.

John C. Hardy, the lawyer who at age 32 argued the Tyler school district’s side before the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe, said he is resigned to the outcome and doubts the ruling would be overturned. At the same time, he suggests that if he had argued 25 years ago before the more conservative justices who sit on the bench today, he would have won.

Legal Legacy

Tyler is receiving a steady flow of undocumented families from Mexico seeking work, according to Ana Fuggins, the executive director of the Hispanic American Association of East Texas. “It’s a matter of survival,” she said.

Some undocumented immigrants, such as four Mexican men interviewed on a recent day while waiting for day jobs that pay $8 to $10 an hour, have families in Mexico but not in the United States. But others, school officials note, send their children to Tyler schools.

Their situations are similar to those of the original four families in the Plyler v. Doe case, which was filed in federal court against then-Superintendent James Plyler and the Tyler school board by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in September 1977.

At least three of the four families who participated in the lawsuit still live in Tyler and now have deep roots in the community.

Alfredo Lopez, one of the plaintiffs in Plyler v. Doe, recalls being pulled out of school for a few days when the Tyler school district began assessing a charge for undocumented students.

All four Mexican-born children of plaintiffs Lidia and Jose M. Lopez, who went under pseudonyms in the lawsuit, own homes in Tyler and send their children to Tyler schools. The couple’s 16 grandchildren take part in a wide range of activities that integrate them into the school community, including basketball, cheerleading, choir, drama, soccer, and the National Junior Honor Society.

Tyler schools began offering limited services for immigrant children in 1978 as required by the state board of education, including a program to help them learn English.

Such efforts have since expanded. About half the classrooms at Douglas Elementary School, located in an overwhelmingly Hispanic neighborhood, provide bilingual education, for example. Since 1990, the number of schools offering bilingual education or English-as-a-second-language classes has grown from three to 12. The district overall has met its adequate yearly progress, or AYP, goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act every year for English-language learners, though not every individual school has met the goal each year.

In accordance with federal law, school personnel don’t ask about children’s immigration status, but sometimes they learn inadvertently that students are undocumented. And that status can affect children’s quality of life and education, according to Sarah Peacock, a guidance counselor at Robert E. Lee High School.

Several years ago, when she was a counselor at Douglas Elementary, she said, she learned that some immigrant mothers were hesitant to get involved in a federal program for preschoolers because they feared it might draw attention to their undocumented status, even though immigration status wasn’t a factor in the program.

She’s convinced that the legalization of undocumented workers would help improve their children’s education by increasing parental involvement in schools.

Immigrants’ Views

Frances Balderrama, a Mexican-American from El Paso, Texas, who started with the district as a bilingual education teacher 16 years ago, directs the school system’s programs for English-language learners. About 3,900 of the district’s 18,000 students are in that category, most of them Spanish-speaking. Ms. Balderrama predicts that many Hispanics who have graduated from Tyler’s high schools soon will create a stronger presence in professional jobs in the city. Already, she said, two Hispanic graduates who had taken bilingual education classes in Tyler public schools are teachers in the school system.

“They want to give back. They want to be productive citizens,” Ms. Balderrama said.

But community leaders also point out that only one Hispanic resident, Gus Ramirez, has run for public office in Tyler in recent years. Mr. Ramirez has served both as a City Council member and as a Smith County commissioner.

None of the eight school board members is Hispanic. Of 24 principals in Tyler schools, only Christy Roach, the 38-year-old first-year principal of Douglas Elementary, is Hispanic. When she attended Douglas Elementary as a child, the school had only five Hispanic families, Ms. Roach said. Now, however, 82 percent of the school’s 647 pre-K-5 students are Hispanic.

It seems the changing demographics of Tyler include undocumented immigrants who intend to stay.

On a recent day, for example, a Mexican man transplanting flowers near the center of town said he has been in Tyler for seven years and that his U.S.-born daughter attends kindergarten at a local public school.

The man, Laudencio, who provided only his first name because he is undocumented, conversed easily in English—he’s taken evening English classes at Douglas Elementary. The Literacy Council of Tyler is offering such classes at the school to about 300 immigrant parents this year.

The 29-year-old said he’s heard some people on TV criticize immigrants, and he’s seen some anti-immigrant yard signs. But no one has expressed such views to him directly, he said.

“There are people who don’t like you—that’s anywhere,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Amid Immigration Debate, Settled Ground

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