Plyler v. Doe

Applying the standard of heightened scrutiny, the Supreme Court ruled that the denial of educational benefits to the children of illegal immigrants is inconsistent with the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In 1975, the Texas legislature, in a revision of its educational legislation, announced that it would not pay for the education of children who were illegally residing in the country, and it authorized local school districts to deny enrollment to such students. It was widely recognized that the measure was directed at undocumented immigrants from Mexico. According to Texas officials, such persons were not “within the jurisdiction” of the state, and therefore they could not claim the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. Opponents of the controversial policy brought a class-action suit on behalf of the children.[c]Plyler v. DoeChildren;Plyler v. Doe[a]Fourteenth Amendment;equal protection clause[c]Plyler v. DoeChildren;Plyler v. Doe[cat]COURT CASES;Plyler v. Doe[04200][cat]CHILDREN;Plyler v. Doe[04200][cat]FAMILY ISSUES;Plyler v.
[a]Fourteenth Amendment;equal protection clause

The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 majority, held that it was unconstitutional for school districts to deny educational benefits to children because of their legal status. Writing for the majority, liberal Justice Brennan, William J.William J. Brennan insisted that the state had failed to demonstrate that the exclusion was a rational means for furthering a “substantial state interest.” Such a denial of educational opportunities would severely restrict the future potentiality of “a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status.” Because many of the children were likely to become naturalized citizens in the future, the denial could result in “the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime.” Examining the wording of the [a]Fourteenth Amendment;equal protection clause Fourteenth Amendment’s term “within its jurisdiction,” Brennan wrote that it applied “to anyone, citizen or stranger, who is subject to the laws of a state.”

As a precedent, the Plyler decision failed to answer a number of questions. The Court did not apply the demanding standard of strict scrutiny to the case, because illegal immigrants were not a suspect class and education was not a fundamental constitutional right. Emphasizing the critical importance of education, nevertheless, the Court’s majority applied the standard of heightened scrutiny. The compromise left it unclear how future courts would deal with other restrictions on public benefits for illegal immigrants.

In 1986, the amnesty portion of the [a]Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986;amnesty provisionsImmigration Reform and Control Act allowed many of the undocumented children covered under the Plyler decision to become legal residents. As the numbers of undocumented immigrants continued to grow, many states continued to complain that the resulting expenses for education and other social programs were unacceptable. In 1994, voters in California passed California;Proposition 187[a]Proposition 187Proposition 187, which specified that the state would not fund nonemergency services for persons residing in the country illegally. Federal courts, however, refused to allow enforcement of the measure, in large part because it contradicted the Plyler ruling.[c]Plyler v. DoeChildren;Plyler v. Doe

Further Reading

  • Chavez, Leo R. Shadowed Lives: Undocumented Immigrants in American Society. 2d ed. Fort Worth, Tex.: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.
  • Kellough, Patrick H., and Jean L. Kellough. Public Education and the Children of Illegal Aliens. Monticello, Ill.: Vance Bibliographies, 1985.
  • Soltero, Carlos. Latinos and American Law: Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

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English as a second language

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Proposition 187

Supreme Court, U.S.