Equity & Diversity

Case Touched Many Parts of Community

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 04, 2007 3 min read

James Plyler, the former superintendent of the Tyler school district, hasn’t talked much over the years about the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case on immigrants rights that bears his name.

But the 82-year-old retired school administrator—whose 1977 move to charge the families of undocumented children here $1,000 per student to attend public schools sparked a federal lawsuit—has more than made his peace with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling against him and the school system in Plyler v. Doe.

“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.

“I’m glad we lost the Hispanic [court case], so that those kids could get educated,” he said in an interview last month.

A quarter-century after the Supreme Court’s decision, interviews with both sides in the case illustrate the complex, often personal nature of the immigration debate in this tight-knit East Texas community.

Mr. Plyler, who was sued in federal court along with the Tyler school board by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, now has Hispanic members in his own family. His son married a woman of Mexican descent from Austin, Texas, and Mr. Plyler, who is known throughout Tyler as Jim, proudly displays photos at home of his grandchildren with Hispanic heritage.

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Of the four plaintiff families, at least three still live in Tyler. The children originally involved in the case are now in their 30s. Several of those interviewed are either legal residents or U.S. citizens. Some say they didn’t realize until more than a decade after the case what it meant that their parents had taken them before dawn one day to a hearing at the federal courthouse in Tyler.

(The judge scheduled the hearing early in the morning to help protect them from being recognized and deported, according to John C. Hardy, the lawyer who represented the school district. They also went by pseudonyms in the case.)

Alfredo Lopez and his sister, Faviola Tizcareño, both children at the time of the case, say their memories were first jogged when reporters tracked them down in 1994 to discuss a ballot measure passed in California that sought to deny a free education to undocumented immigrants.

Listen to an interview with lawyer John C. Hardy.

“Around here, nobody knows anything about [Plyler v. Doe],” said Mr. Lopez. He noted that his parents, plaintiffs Lidia and Jose M. Lopez, never brought it up.

Laura Alvarez Reyna, one of the Mexican-born children of Jacqueline and Humberto Alvarez who were plaintiffs, said her parents were reluctant to discuss the case.

“Those were adult issues, and kids were not involved in adult issues,” said Ms. Reyna.


People involved in the case have varied memories of the events surrounding the case.

Mr. Plyler said he initially advocated the $1,000 annual charge for each undocumented child because Texas had passed a law in 1975 requiring school districts to charge tuition for such students or lose state funds. For two school years after passage of the law, he said, the district didn’t enforce it. But because more Hispanic families were moving to Tyler, he said, the district “didn’t have a choice” during the 1977-78 school year.

After the lawsuit was filed, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice ordered the Tyler Independent School District to continue teaching undocumented children while the case was being decided. Mr. Plyler doesn’t recall that children were turned away from school.

But Alfredo Lopez remembers that he and his siblings were put out of school for a few days when he was 8 years old.

Michael McAndrew, who then worked with Hispanic families at a local Roman Catholic church, said Hispanic children were turned away at the start of the 1977-78 school year for a short time. Mr. McAndrew, 66, contends that Tyler principals didn’t know who was undocumented and sent children home based on how they were dressed.

“If you looked poor, you must be undocumented. If you were neat and clean, you weren’t. I thought it was discrimination against poverty,” he said.

All of the plaintiffs interviewed said they are grateful for having received a high school education in Tyler.

Ms. Tizcareño, 37, a homemaker who previously worked in customer service, said her education “gave me my basic skills.”

“I didn’t go to a college, but for a while I was working for a job for $10 per hour,” she said. “I wouldn’t have had that without typing skills and the English language.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2007 edition of Education Week as Case Touched Many Parts of Community


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