U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court extended the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to guarantee the right of noncitizens to public social services.

Summary of Event

In May, 1975, the Texas legislature enacted a law that denied financial support for the public education of the children of undocumented aliens. The state’s local school districts, accordingly, were allowed to exclude such children from public school enrollment. The children of noncitizen aliens who henceforth paid for their public school education still were permitted to enroll. Despite the statute, Texas public school districts continued enrolling the children of undocumented aliens until 1977-1978, when, amid a continuing economic recession and accompanying budget tightening, the law was enforced. An initial challenge to the 1975 law arose in the Tyler Independent School District in Smith County, located in northeastern Texas, but similar challenges in other school districts soon produced a class-action suit. Plyler v. Doe (1982) Supreme Court, U.S.;equal protection [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services (June 15, 1982) [kw]Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services, U.S. (June 15, 1982) [kw]Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services, U.S. Supreme (June 15, 1982) [kw]Right of Noncitizens to Social Services, U.S. Supreme Court Upholds (June 15, 1982) [kw]Noncitizens to Social Services, U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of (June 15, 1982) [kw]Social Services, U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to (June 15, 1982) Plyler v. Doe (1982) Supreme Court, U.S.;equal protection [g]North America;June 15, 1982: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services[04910] [g]United States;June 15, 1982: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services[04910] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 15, 1982: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services[04910] [c]Civil rights and liberties;June 15, 1982: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services[04910] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;June 15, 1982: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Right of Noncitizens to Social Services[04910] Brennan, William J. Burger, Warren E. Taney, Roger Brooke

The problem that had inspired the state law was the massive influx principally of Mexicans but also of persons from other Central American countries into Texas, as well as into New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Some of these people entered the United States for seasonal agricultural jobs, while others, undocumented, remained. Immigration;illegal Most were poor and seeking economic opportunities unavailable to them in Mexico and Central America. Figures released by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated that when the Plyler v. Doe case arose, between two and three million undocumented aliens resided in Texas and other southwestern portions of the United States. Texas claimed that 5 percent of its population, three-quarters of a million people, were undocumented aliens, roughly twenty thousand of whose children were enrolled in Texas public schools. With recession adversely affecting employment, many of the state’s taxpayers asked why they should bear the financial burdens of educating illegal aliens, as well as providing them with other benefits, such as food stamps and welfare payments.

On June 15, 1982, on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority, Associate Justice William J. Brennan declared that the 1975 Texas statute rationally served no substantial state interest and violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Fourteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) Ratified along with the Thirteenth and Fifteen Amendments during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed “that no State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Although the overriding concern of Reconstruction politicians, judges, and states ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment was to afford protection to newly emancipated African Americans, the equal protection clause increasingly had been interpreted to mean what it stated: guaranteeing equal protection of the laws to any person precisely the line of reasoning taken by Brennan. Brennan and the Court majority likewise disagreed with the Texas argument that undocumented aliens did not fall “within its jurisdiction,” thus excluding them and their children from Fourteenth Amendment guarantees. Such an exclusion, Brennan declared, condemned innocents to a lifetime of hardship and the stigma of illiteracy.

The Supreme Court’s five-to-four decision in Plyler v. Doe upheld a previous decision by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court that had ruled for the defendants. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger vigorously dissented from the majority opinion, along with Justices Byron White, White, Byron William H. Rehnquist, Rehnquist, William H. and Sandra Day O’Connor. O’Connor, Sandra Day


The Plyler decision was novel in two important respects. It was the first decision to extend Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to each person, irrespective of that person’s citizenship or immigration status. Second, the Court majority introduced a new criterion for determining the applicability of Fourteenth Amendment protections: the doctrine of heightened or intermediate scrutiny. The Court avoided applying its previous standard of strict scrutiny. It recognized that education was not a fundamental right and that undocumented aliens were not, as it had previously phrased it, a “suspect class,” in the sense that they, like African Americans, historically had been victims of racial discrimination. Heightened scrutiny was warranted, Brennan and the majority agreed, because of education’s special importance to other social benefits and because children of undocumented aliens were not responsible for their status.

Chief Justice Burger and the three other dissenting, generally conservative, justices, who were staunch advocates of judicial restraint, strongly criticized Brennan and the majority for what the dissenters considered to be arguing political opinions instead of adhering to sound jurisprudence. The dissenters seriously questioned heightened scrutiny as a viable judicial standard and found that the Texas statute substantially furthered the state’s legitimate interests.

The Plyler decision represented a significant departure from the decision rendered by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857), a decision that the Fourteenth Amendment was designed in part to nullify by political means. Plyler’s heightened standard of scrutiny, however, continued to be controversial and confusing, both within the Supreme Court and among legal observers. The issue arising when the equal protection clause was applied to cases not involving racial discrimination had been raised in Buck v. Bell (1927), Buck v. Bell (1927) when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Jr. denounced such decision making as “the usual last resort of constitutional arguments.”

In Plyler, Brennan and the majority saw no chance to apply the Court’s already accepted classification of strict scrutiny to equal protection cases, because Plyler’s defendants, the undocumented aliens, were not victims of institutionalized racial discrimination or of “reverse discrimination.” They were illegal immigrants as a consequence of their own conscious actions. Nevertheless, as legal scholars observed, in order to prevent hardship and stigmas from afflicting schoolchildren, who were not responsible for their parents’ actions, the Plyler majority introduced an intermediate level of classification with their standard of heightened scrutiny. Such a standard raised questions about whether undocumented aliens and their families enjoyed rights to other government benefits, such as welfare assistance, medical care, and food stamps. Plyler v. Doe (1982) Supreme Court, U.S.;equal protection

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aleinikoff, Thomas A., David A. Martin, and Hiroshi Motomura. Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy. 5th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 2003. A careful review of modern U.S. immigration policies. Discusses the problems posed by undocumented aliens and the difficulties faced by government policy makers in coping with undocumented people.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blasi, Vincent, ed. The Burger Court. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983. An authoritative yet readable analysis of the chief justiceship of Warren Burger, which did little to modify civil rights decisions of his predecessors. Also clarifies Brennan’s attitudes and decisions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curtis, Michael Kent. No State Shall Abridge: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. Provides clear, scholarly exposition of the role played by the Fourteenth Amendment and the Bill of Rights in modern U.S. jurisprudence, including civil and criminal rights, racial and reverse discrimination, and interpretations of due process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hull, Elizabeth. Without Justice for All. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A precise study bearing on the problems raised in Plyler, the historical plight of resident and illegal aliens and their families, and the varying status of their constitutional rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mirande, Alfredo. Gringo Justice. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990. A spirited, dismaying critique of U.S. judicial and political treatment of Hispanic immigrants by both the states and the federal government. Provides excellent context for understanding important aspects of the Plyler case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, William E. The Fourteenth Amendment: From Political Principle to Judicial Doctrine. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. An authoritative analysis of the evolution of the Fourteenth Amendment from a set of political principles to a vital part of twentieth century judicial decision making. Good analyses of the Supreme Court’s standards of scrutiny, including the intermediate or “heightened” scrutiny applied in Plyler.

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Categories: History