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Plyler v. Doe


With this decision, states could no longer withhold public education from children simply because they were illegal aliens.

Although it may seem to be a contradiction, the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause provides certain rights to illegal aliens the same as any legal alien or U.S. citizen. The case of Plyler v. Doe helped the U.S. Supreme Court guarantee those rights through application of the Equal Protection Clause.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the flood of people into the United States made it necessary to begin limiting immigration. That it is illegal to enter the country without permission has not prevented uncountable masses from taking up illegal residence. Border states like California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas are especially susceptible to immigrants looking for a better way of life.

In May of 1975, members of the Texas legislature decided that illegal immigration was a problem, and it was necessary to change its existing education statutes. Now, the state would withhold funding from local school districts for educating students who were not legal residents of the United States. The same ruling also allowed local school districts to decide that they could deny admission to students who were illegal residents.

In spite of the ruling, at least one school system--the Tyler Independent School District--allowed children of dubious legal residence to continue enrollment and attendance. This changed in July of 1977 when it announced that in order for these children to enroll, they would be charged a "full tuition fee."

In September of 1977, a class action was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas for those Mexican-born, school-age children, who lived in Smith County, and could not prove legal residence in the United States. The action argued that these children were excluded from the Tyler Independent School District public schools.

The suit named as defendants both the school district's superintendent and members of the district's board of trustees. The state of Texas tried to intervene by becoming a party defendant; that is, the state wanted the right to provide defense, cross examine witnesses and appeal from judgment.

First, the district court established that there was a class that consisted of all Mexican-born school-age children who lived in the school district. Next, the district court ruled that the defendants had to provide a free education to all members of the plaintiff class, the same as any legal United States resident. This was a preliminary ruling, not a permanent decision.

In December of 1977, the plaintiffs moved for permanent injunctive relief--assistance from the court to invalidate the statute and correct an injustice. In its case, the state argued that the statutes were merely ways to help avoid financial drains. The district court noted that while these laws may indeed save money, they would not improve the quality of the education. The court also noted that it was only this one small segment of the population which had to bear the responsibilities for the school district's financial burdens. The court pointed out that although these families had immigrated to the United States illegally, they were here to stay and, in fact, may well be future legal residents.

Following this line of reasoning, the court said that these children were poor, lacked crucial English language skills, and were victims of widespread racial prejudice. Preventing them from attending school would only ensure that they remained at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. The district court found that the statutes violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause which protects all illegal aliens. The district court also ruled that the Supremacy Clause had been violated, that the state law was superseded by the Immigration and Nationality Act as well as federal laws that concerned funding and educational discrimination. The court of appeals decided that the district court had misinterpreted the Supremacy Clause precedents, but agreed that the Texas laws were basically unconstitutional.

This was not the only action against Texas, however. The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation consolidated other Texas federal district court actions into one case that the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas would hear. This district also confirmed that the Texas law violated the Equal Protection Clause.

Finally, the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which held the findings of the lower courts in regard to violating the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Justice Brennan wrote an opinion that was concurred by Justices Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, and Stevens. It stated that neither the immigrant children's illegal status, nor the state's contention that its resources were limited, established a "sufficient rational basis" for the statute's discriminatory aspects. Brennan's opinion also held that the Equal Protection Clause had been violated. Justice Marshall concurred, saying he believed that to deny public education based on class is "utterly incompatible" with the Equal Protection Clause. Justice Blackmun also concurred, saying that when a state allows some to have a public education and denies it to others, a distinction between classes is inevitable--a fundamental inconsistency with the purpose of the Equal Protection Clause. Finally, Justice Powell agreed, stating that in his opinion, denying education to these children didn't help the state of Texas substantially.

However, Chief Justice Burger was joined by Justice White, Justice Rehnquist, and Justice O'Connor in dissenting, saying that while it was regrettable that Congress had been lax in its enforcement of the country's immigration laws, it was not the Court's responsibility to make up for that laxity.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Plyler v. Doe - Significance, Related Cases, Right To A Public Education, Further Readings