Los Angeles, CA – On June 15, 1982, the United States Supreme Court handed down a historic ruling that guaranteed all children access to a free public education from kindergarten to 12th grade, regardless of immigration status.
The high court issued its decision in a lawsuit filed by MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), challenging Texas’ effort to charge undocumented immigrant children tuition to attend the same public schools that provided a free education to other children.
Writing for the majority, Justice William J. Brennan Jr. concluded that “education provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all” and that the state could not constitutionally deny such an education to undocumented children.
MALDEF celebrates the 35th anniversary of the vital Plyler v. Doe ruling today.
Please attribute the following statement marking the 35th anniversary of the Plyler v. Doe ruling to MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz:
“We commemorate Plyler because too many have forgotten its holding, advocating today to punish immigrant children by denying education, and because our politics today would improve with the introduction of more of the shared values reflected in the Plyler ruling. We should remember three key aspects of the Plyler case today:
First, Plyler rejected an indirect attempt to prevent and deter immigrant children from attending school through charging tuition. The Supreme Court recognized that tuition would prevent most undocumented children from ever attending school. We need to recognize that the still-vital Plyler decision outlaws not just policies that directly bar immigrant students from attending school, but also attempts to indirectly prevent immigrant children from attending school, such as data collection and sharing of data on students’ or parents’ status, or immigration enforcement activity undertaken on or near public schools or on students’ transit routes to schools.
Second, although Plyler was a 5-4 decision on the constitutional question, all nine of the Supreme Court justices agreed that the Texas attempt to charge tuition to undocumented students was bad public policy. Chief Justice Warren Burger began his dissenting opinion, joined by three other justices, including arch-conservative Justice William Rehnquist, by stating that he ‘would agree without hesitation that it is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children . . . of an elementary education.’ Those who would today assert that depriving children of an education is appropriate policy should be mindful of the views of all nine justices in Plyler.
Third, the Plyler ruling was grounded in two critical American values – that individuals should be judged based on their own actions, not those of their parents, and that our nation welcomes and depends upon immigrants. The Court majority in Plyler emphasized that minor children attending K-12 schools had no choice or meaningful input in the decision to immigrate to the United States. While pundits can debate the moral culpability of adult undocumented workers pushed to migrate by economic and social upheaval, there should be no debate that children have no culpability. And so the Court noted.
The Court also posited that many of the children who would be denied an education would eventually adjust their immigration status – through marriage to a United States citizen, for example – and be expected as permanent residents and naturalized citizens to contribute to our economy and society. The Court noted the importance of an education to fulfilling that obligation. Both of these conclusions also support the centrality of family. People ought to be able to marry someone they love, and the nation should support married couples living together, with full rights, in this country. And children generally should be expected to stay and benefit from staying with their parents, and they should not be punished for staying with their parents.
In commemorating Plyler, we should remember not just the vital and continuing importance of the right to school recognized in the ruling, but also the grounding of the case in traditional American – some might even say ‘conservative’ – values, resulting in the stated policy views of even the four dissenting justices.”