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"The Schoolhouse Gate": Public Schools, Unauthorized Immigrants, and the Overlooked Import of Plyler v. Doe

The 1982 decision prevented a Texas measure from becoming dominant, thus ensuring access to school for undocumented minors throughout the nation.


This post is the fourth in a series of edited excerpts from my new book, "The Schoolhouse Gate: Public Education, the Supreme Court, and the Battle for the American Mind." In Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court invalidated a Texas law that permitted schools to exclude undocumented minors. Prominent law professors have dismissed the decision as insignificant, but closer examination reveals Plyler v. Doe rests among the most momentous cases in the Supreme Court's entire history.

In 1974, Humberto Alvarez departed Mexico City and headed north in search of a better way of life for his family. After crossing the U.S. border without authorization, Alvarez settled in Tyler, Texas, where he secured work at a local meatpacking plant and sent for his family. But one year after his children arrived, Tyler education officials declared that unauthorized immigrants had effectively been banished from the public schools. Relying upon a statewide law that refused to allocate funds to localities for the education of noncitizens and even permitted their exclusion from public schools, Tyler announced that unauthorized immigrants would be required to pay one thousand dollars in tuition annually for each child who attended school.

Tyler's school superintendent, James Plyler, contended that educating undocumented minors financially strained the district. But this explanation seems difficult to credit as unauthorized immigrants accounted for only twenty-four of the sixteen thousand students in the district. After Alvarez witnessed his children stay home from school day after day at the beginning of the 1977 school year, he joined three other families in a lawsuit contesting the constitutionality of Texas's exclusionary law. The federal trial court in Tyler ordered the schools to readmit the excluded students.

In 1982, the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe endorsed that assessment by deeming the measure unconstitutional in a 5–4 decision. Justice William Brennan's opinion rested on three key justifications. First, Brennan emphasized that the Texas law penalized minors, repeatedly referred to as "innocent children," not because of their own conduct but because of their parents' actions. Second, Brennan contended that the measure's absolute exclusion of unauthorized immigrants from school severely burdened this vulnerable group. The complete absence of education would "impose[ ] a lifetime hardship" on young unauthorized immigrants, harming not only their own economic prospects but also their ability to contribute to the nation's civic life. Third, Brennan suggested that upholding Texas's law would "raise the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens" because it curtailed access to American public schools—traditionally, an invaluable aid in sociocultural assimilation. "We cannot ignore the significant costs borne by our Nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests," Brennan reasoned.

Chief Justice Burger's dissenting opinion portrayed the Texas statute as a valid, if unwise exercise of constitutional authority. Burger left no doubt that he found the law imprudent from a policy standpoint, but he nonetheless insisted it violated no constitutional provision. "The Constitution does not provide a cure for every social ill, nor does it vest judges with a mandate to try to remedy every social problem," he contended. "[W]hen this Court rushes in to remedy what it perceives to be the failings of the political processes, it deprives those processes of an opportunity to function."

When the Court issued Plyler v. Doe, no state in the nation other than Texas had enacted legislation eliminating unauthorized immigrants' access to education. This legislative background has, in recent years, motivated some law professors to dismiss Plyler v. Doe as an insignificant opinion that invalidated merely an "outlier" statute. According to these scholars, it would be sorely mistaken to understand Plyler v. Doe as providing a meaningful contribution to America's constitutional legacy of protecting minority rights because the opinion simply ratified the prevailing view across the country.

But such dismissive assessments of Plyler v. Doe miss the mark. Although initially rejecting a policy located only in Texas, the decision has enjoyed broad applicability throughout the nation, and has served as a vital bulwark against widespread efforts to deprive unauthorized immigrants of access to education. Plyler v. Doe's guarantee that the schoolhouse doors cannot be closed to one of society's most marginalized, vilified groups has allowed innumerable children to expand their minds and their horizons.

Examining Plyler v. Doe in context renders its major contributions to the American legal landscape unmistakable. Justice Brennan's opinion expressly noted that unauthorized immigrants "now live within various States" and framed the decision as holding nationwide implications. In addition, that four Supreme Court justices voted to uphold the Texas statute suggests it was hardly viewed as incomprehensible from a national perspective. During the Court's internal deliberations, moreover, Justice William Rehnquist referred to unauthorized immigrants as "wetbacks." That Rehnquist would use such incendiary, offensive language vividly attests to the unvarnished animus directed toward unauthorized immigrants, even in the most rarefied elements of American society.

Furthermore, Texas's exclusionary measure was perceived as neither trivial nor eccentric. The civil rights community viewed Plyler v. Doe as momentous because it feared that a decision upholding the Texas measure would invite additional states to adopt analogous statutes. As it turned out, Texas was far from the last jurisdiction seeking to ban unauthorized immigrants from school. Voters in California during the 1990s and legislators in Alabama two decades later enacted their own versions of these initiatives, as supporters of both measures hoped to spark a reassessment of Plyler v. Doe. In both instances, lower federal courts swiftly applied the precedent to reject those measures. In the absence of a Supreme Court precedent on the question, though, it seems virtually guaranteed that many additional states would have adopted similar measures.

Civil rights lawyers have utilized Plyler v. Doe around the nation to prevent school districts from adopting measures that demand information from enrolling students that unauthorized immigrants cannot provide. In recent years, civil rights groups have motivated education officials to warn school districts against requiring information from enrolling students that would force unauthorized immigrants to disclose their immigration status. The Department of Justice, under President Obama, joined the chorus condemning these enrollment practices by invoking Plyler v. Doe to inform school administrators that the practices violated federal law.

Plyler v. Doe's protection of unauthorized immigrants' access to public schools has endured for more than three decades. The opinion's durability is remarkable not least because it challenges an ascendant school of thought within legal academia, suggesting that the Supreme Court affords protection to particular groups only after a social movement has first succeeded in transforming cultural attitudes within the larger nation. That narrative surely captures many important constitutional developments, but it is virtually impossible to construe Plyler v. Doe as the culmination of a mass social movement that altered American attitudes toward unauthorized immigration. No such movement existed in the early 1980s. Scholars interested in exploring the judicial capacity to vindicate constitutional rights—even in the absence of widespread popular support—would be well advised to examine Plyler v. Doe's successful effort to retain access to education for all minors, including unauthorized immigrants.