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History Lesson 10: Plyler v. Doe: Can States Deny Public Benefits to Illegal Immigrants?

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Overview:

This lesson focuses on the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe on whether a state may deny public education to the children of illegal immigrants. It gives the background on the case and the arguments for both sides. In the activity, students take part in mock hearing before the Supreme Court on this case.

Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • Explain the background and issues in the case of Plyler v. Doe.
  • Present an argument on the issues in the case.
  • Evaluate the arguments in the case.
  • Explain what the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment means.

Standards Addressed:

National Civics Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society. (6) Knows how shared ideas and values of American political culture are reflected in various sources and documents (e.g., . . . landmark decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States)

California History-Social Science Standard 11.10: Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights. (2) Examine and analyze the key . . . court cases in the evolution of civil rights.

California History-Social Science Standard 12.5: Students summarize landmark U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution and its amendments. (1) Understand the changing interpretations of the Bill of Rights over time, including interpretations of the basic freedoms . . . articulated in the . . . equal-protection-of-the-law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Notes: After the activity, explain to students the outcome of the case. By a 5 to 4 vote, the Supreme Court decided:

  1. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applies "to anyone, citizens or stranger" residing within a state's boundaries. The children in this case were within the jurisdiction of the state and were thus protected by the 14th Amendment.
  2. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires Texas and the Tyler Independent School District to provide free public schooling to the children of undocumented immigrants on an equal basis with the other children in the state and school district.

Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan concluded: "We cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by the nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests."

Writing for the four dissenters, Chief Justice Warren Burger states: "By definition, illegal aliens have no rights whatever to be here, and the state may reasonably and constitutionally, elect to provide them with government services at the expense of those who are lawfully in the state."

Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)
Plyler v. Doe: Can States Deny Public Benefits to Illegal Immigrants?

The Supreme Court

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of
a group of undocumented workers who had been denied
free public schooling by the state of Texas. (Shutterstock.com)

During the 1970s, large numbers of people entered the United States illegally. Many came from Mexico to work for low wages in border states like Texas. Attorney General William French Smith testified before Congress in 1981 that most of the 1 to 6 million illegal immigrants were living more or less permanently in this country. This situation led to questions about the legal status and rights of these people, who are often referred to as "undocumented workers" or "illegal aliens," because they have not obtained papers necessary for being in the country.

The 14th Amendment prohibits any state from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The equal protection clause requires that all American citizens be treated equally by the law. But does the equal protection clause also demand equal treatment for those who are not citizens or who have entered the United States illegally?

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of a group of children of undocumented workers who had been denied free public schooling by the state of Texas. After reading the background and arguments of this case, your class will have the opportunity to role play the Supreme Court hearing.

The Background of Plyler v. Doe

In May 1975, the Texas state legislature passed a law authorizing school districts to deny enrollment to children who had not been "legally admitted" into the United States. Under this law, Texas school districts could either bar from the schools the children of people who entered illegally or charge them tuition. The Tyler Independent School District in Smith County chose the second option.

Several federal court lawsuits were filed against the Texas law. The first was a class-action suit filed in 1977 by attorneys on behalf of "certain school-age children of Mexican origins residing in Smith County, Texas, who could not establish that they had been legally admitted into the United States." A federal district court ruled in 1977 and again in 1980 that the state law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. An injunction (court order) barred the state and the Tyler School Board from denying free public schooling to the undocumented immigrant children. A federal appeals court in 1981 agreed with the lower court ruling. The Tyler school board and school superintendent, James Plyler, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Constitutional Questions

In preparing their briefs for the Supreme Court hearings, the attorneys for both sides had to address two basic constitutional questions:

  • Does the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause apply to school-age children who have not been "legally admitted" into the United States?
  • Does the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause require Texas and the Tyler Independent School District to provide to school-age children who have not been "legally admitted" into the United States a free public education on an equal basis with children who are legally residing in the state?

The Arguments of the Appellants

Attorneys representing the Tyler Independent School District, the appellants in this case, answered "no" to both of the constitutional questions. To support their position, the appellants offered the following arguments:

  • The children in this case are not "persons" within the state's jurisdiction. They are unlawfully living in the state and are subject to deportation.
  • By denying free public schooling to children of undocumented immigrants, the Texas law serves a "substantial state interest," which justified an exception to the equal protection clause. The "substantial state interest" in this case is based on the following:
    a. It will cost Texas over $62 million per year to educate the estimated 20,000 children of undocumented immigrants now living in the state. This money could better be spent on the children of legal residents.
    b. A free public education for undocumented children will encourage the continued influx of undocumented immigrants into Texas.
    c. The children of undocumented aliens place "special burdens" on the Texas education system such as the hiring of additional bilingual teachers.
  • The U.S. Supreme court has earlier held that a free public education is not a "fundamental right" under the Constitution. [San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez 411 U.S. 1 (1973)]
  • Requiring free public schooling for these children will lead to others who have entered the country illegally demanding equal access to such public benefits as food stamps, unemployment insurance, and a free college education.
  • Congress and the federal government should be held responsible for the education of illegal immigrant children since this is a national, not a state problem.
  • The Supreme Court has no constitutional authority to strike down state laws simply because they may be unwise.
  • The Supreme Court has no constitutional authority to create rights when they do not exist in the Constitution.
  • The Supreme Court should not attempt to solve social problems. This is the job of the Congress and the state legislatures.
  • It is not fair for Texas taxpayers to pay for educating the children of the world.

The Arguments of the Respondents

The attorneys representing the undocumented immigrant children, the respondents in this case, answered "yes" to both of the constitutional questions. To support their position, the respondents offered the following arguments:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has previously ruled that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applies not only to citizens but to "any person," including aliens [Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356 (1886)]. The children in this case are "persons" living within the jurisdiction of the state since they reside in Texas and are subject to its laws.
  • Discrimination against the school-age children in this case is not justified by any "substantial state interest":
    a. The children in this case represent only 1 percent of the school-age population in Texas. Spending state funds to educate these children will not reduce the quality of schooling of the other children.
    b. There is little evidence that undocumented immigrants come to Texas seeking educational benefits for their children. Most come looking for jobs.
    c. Most of the state funds used for bilingual education and related special needs are spent on pupils who are legal residents.
  • While education may not be a "fundamental right" under the Constitution, the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires that when a state establishes a public school system (as in Texas), no child living in that state may be denied equal access to schooling.
  • Failure to educate these children will lead to higher future social costs related to unemployment, welfare, and crime.
  • Children should not be penalized for the illegal acts of their parents.
  • Undocumented immigrant children could later become legal residents or even citizens as a result of marriage or changes in the law.
  • Denying a free public education to the children of undocumented immigrants will keep them forever in the lowest socio-economic class.Some children of undocumented immigrant parents were born in this country. These children are already full citizens of the United States and are entitled to an education. But their brothers and sisters born in Mexico are still in the United States illegally. Is it fair for some children in a family to have access to public education while others are denied?
  • The Texas law presents the danger of creating a permanent class of undocumented immigrants encouraged to stay as cheap labor, but denied any benefits of society.
  • Texas will be better off having these children in school rather than roaming the streets.

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What was the case of Plyler v. Doe about?
  2. In your opinion, whom does the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment protect? Why?
  3. Do you think any of the following public benefits should be available to undocumented immigrants or their children? Why?
    Public College Education
    Public Housing
    Food Stamps
    Welfare
    Public Schooling
    Unemployment Benefits

Activity

Supreme Court Hearing

  1. 1. Divide the class into three groups to take on the roles of attorneys for the appellants, attorneys for the respondents, and justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  2. 2. The attorney group should again read the constitutional questions in the case and the arguments for their side. Each attorney should be responsible for presenting to the Supreme Court at least one of the 10 arguments. Attorneys should be prepared to explain and answer questions on their arguments, not merely read them word-for-word from the article.
  3. 3. One of two attorneys from each side of the case should additionally prepare to make summary statements. These statements will come at the end of the Supreme Court hearing and should directly answer the two constitutional questions.
  4. 4. The students role playing justices of the Supreme Court should again read the entire article. They should prepare questions to ask the attorneys about their arguments. The justices should also choose a "chief justice" who will preside at the hearing and recognize attorneys who wish to speak.

    Rules of Procedure

    These rules modify actual Supreme Court procedure for the purpose of conducting this class simulation:
    a. The chief justice will read the name of the case and the constitutional question that both sides must address.
    b. The chief justice will them ask the appellants to present their arguments. Each attorney for the appellants will have a turn to present his or her argument. The justices (but not the attorneys on the other side) may interrupt and ask questions at any time.
    c. The chief justice will next recognize individual attorneys for the respondents who wish to make rebuttals or ask questions.
    d. The attorneys for the respondent will them have their turn to present arguments. When they are finished, the attorneys for the appellants will have the opportunity to make rebuttals or ask questions.
    e. At the end of the hearing, the chief justice will recognize attorneys for the purpose of presenting summary statements. The attorney(s) for the respondents will go first.
    f. When the hearing has been concluded, the Supreme Court justices will meet privately to discuss their answer to the two constitutional questions. A separate vote should be taken on each question with a simple majority deciding each issue.
    g. Finally, the chief justice will announce the vote on the two constitutional questions and each justice will have reasons for his or her votes.

 

 
This web resource was made possible by a generous grant from the Weingart Foundation, with additional support from the Ford Foundation.