June 11, 2012
Celebrate the 30th Anniversary of Plyler v. Doe
Friday, June 15 is the 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court's pathbreaking decision in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), which protects the rights of undocumented students to a public elementary and secondary school education.
In that case, the Court, in an majority opinion written by Justice Brennan, struck down a Texas law that effectively barred undocumented students from receiving a public education from kindergarten through high school. At the outset, the Court acknowledged that
Sheer incapability or lax enforcement of the laws barring entry into this country, coupled with the failure to establish an effective bar to the employment of undocumented aliens, has resulted in the creation of a substantial “shadow population” of illegal migrants -- numbering in the millions -- within our borders. This situation raises the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents. The existence of such an underclass presents most difficult problems for a Nation that prides itself on adherence to principles of equality under law.
In striking down the Texas law, the Court recognized that
The children who are plaintiffs in these cases are special members of [an alien] underclass. Persuasive arguments support the view that a State may withhold its beneficience from those whose very presence within the United States is the product of their own unlawful conduct. These arguments do not apply with the same force to classifications imposing disabilities on the minor children of such illegal entrants. . . . Even if the State found it expedient to control the conduct of adults by acting against their children, legislation directing the onus of a parent's misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.
The Court held that the Texas law could not deny the undocumented children a public education and
impose a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. The stigma of illiteracy will mark them for the rest of their lives. 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. In determining the rationality of [the Texas law], we may appropriately take into account its costs to the Nation and to the innocent children who are its victims.
Decided by a divided Court, Plyler v. Doe has been challenged over the years, including by California's Proposition 187 in 1994, which absent an injunction would have prohibited undocumented students from the public schools. Today, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez spoke about Plyler and the U.S. government's efforts to protect the rights of students in the face of Alabama's H.B. 56, which seeks to collect information about the immigration status of students (and their parents) attending public schools.
For book-length treatments of the fight for access to education by undocumented students, see MICHAEL A. OLIVAS, NO UNDOCUMENTED CHILD LEFT BEHIND (2012); MARÍA PABÓN LÓPEZ & GERARDO R. LÓPEZ, PERSISTENT INEQUALITY: CONTEMPORARY REALITIES IN THE EDUCATION OF UNDOCUMENTED LATINA/O STUDENTS (2010).
UPDATE (June 14): The Center for American Progress has released a report today on Triumphs and Challenges on the 30th Anniversary of Plyler v. Doe.
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