Undocumented immigrants have long been criticized as one of the main problems in U.S. immigration policy. As a matter of fact, very few public benefits have been granted to them. In Plyler, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to do more damage and take away their (children’s) right to public education.
In 1975, the Texas legislature revised its education statutes to deny free public education (enrollment and state funds) to children who were illegally admitted into the United States. Plyler was a class action on behalf of a group of school-age children of Mexican origin, and it complained of the exclusion of such children from public schools. The district court held that illegal aliens were entitled to the protection of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and that the discrimination embodied in the Texas statutes failed a rational-basis test and violated the equal protection clause. The court of appeals upheld the district court’s decision.
The Court affirmed and held that ‘‘the protections of the Fourteenth Amendment extend to anyone, citizen or stranger, who is subject to the laws of a State, and reaches into every corner of a State’s territory.’’ Unlike their parents, who entered the nation illegally, the Court recognized that children in this case ‘‘can affect neither their parents’ conduct nor their own status’’ and there is no rational justification to punish them in concord with conceptions of justice. Though education is not a right granted to individuals by the Constitution, the Court believed that education has a fundamental role in society and that, denied proper education, children of illegal entrants would likely become locked into their low socioeconomic status and never be able to move ahead.
In its balance test, the Court turned down the state’s claimed interest in the preservation of limited resources for the education of its lawful residents. The Texas education statutes failed to offer an effective means to cure the claimed problems caused by the influx of illegal immigrants. The record failed to show that illegal entrants imposed any significant burden on the state’s economy and that exclusion of undocumented children was likely to improve the overall quality of education in the state. Moreover, given the fact that many of these children potentially could remain in the states and become lawful residents or citizens, minimal savings that might be achieved by denying them proper education would not counter potentially more substantial costs suffered by these children, the state, and the nation.
Justices Marshall, Blackmun, and Powell filed separate opinions supporting a more fundamental status for education. Justices Burger, White, Rehnquist, and O’Connor dissented in their opinion and argued that the majority crossed the political boundary of the Court and acted for Congress in establishing a national policy. The dissenters believed that the claimed interest by the state bore a rational relationship to its legislation and therefore passed the constitutional test.
Plyler was a major victory for illegal immigrants. By safeguarding their children’s educational right, the Court reaffirmed its traditional responsibility to protect politically powerless minorities.
References and Further Reading