Plyler v. Doe Primary Source eText

Primary Source

(U.S. Immigration and Migration: Primary Sources)

The decision in Plyler v. United States gave children of illegal immigrants the right to an education in the United States. © Mug Shots/Corbis. The decision in Plyler v. United States gave children of illegal immigrants the right to an education in the United States. Published by Gale Cengage Mug Shots/Corbis
Mexican emigrants, with children in hand, cross the Rio Grande River. © Danny Lehman/Corbis. Mexican emigrants, with children in hand, cross the Rio Grande River. Published by Gale Cengage Danny Lehman/Corbis

Excerpt from U.S. Supreme Court trial of 1982

Opinion written by U.S. Supreme Court justice William J. Brennan on June 15, 1982

The U.S. Supreme Court rules that the children of illegal immigrants had the same rights as everyone else, especially the right to an education

"By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation."

In 1977, children of illegal immigrants were not allowed to attend school in Texas without paying tuition, a fee paid to attend a school. Nearly none could afford the tuition. Five years later, in 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not deny the children of illegal immigrants a public education. The case, called Plyler v. Doe, found that depriving children of a basic education would mark them for life, through no fault of their own. They were living in Texas, and that fact gave them the right to an education, just as every other child living in the state had a right to attend public school.

Visas are the government documents that give people the right to enter the United States, usually for a temporary period or for a specific purpose. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, citizens in states bordering Mexico became concerned about the large numbers of immigrants coming across the U.S. border without visas. In Texas, the state enacted a law stating that the children of these "illegal immigrants" were not entitled to attend public schools, a right given to every other child in the state.

In Tyler, Texas, parents of immigrant children filed a lawsuit challenging the Texas law. Their legal argument was that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed that every person living in the United States would be treated equally; the amendment said nothing about a person's status as a legal immigrant or an illegal immigrant.

The immigrants won their case. The state of Texas appealed to a higher court and, after losing there, appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. There, in 1982, the immigrants won again. In their ruling, the Supreme Court, by a vote of 5 to 4, declared that the children of illegal immigrants were people like everyone else, and had the same rights as everyone else, especially the right to an education. Depriving children of an education could leave them illiterate, or unable to read or write, for life and condemn them to a lifetime of low-paying jobs.

From the standpoint of people migrating to the United States, especially from Mexico and Central America, the ruling

had two impacts. First, the ruling meant that the children of immigrants could get a free education in the United States whether or not their parents had legal entry visas. Second, the court recognized that immigrants were people living in the United States, and the provisions of the Constitution applied to them equally as everyone else living in the United States.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Plyler v. Doe:

  • The case is named after the superintendent of public schools in Tyler, Texas, James Plyler; two unnamed parents who were illegal immigrants, referred to as "J. and R. Doe" to protect their anonymity, or their right in a legal case to not be named; and "Certain named and unnamed undocumented alien [foreign] children." Plyler had enforced the law barring children of illegal immigrants from attending public schools unless they paid tuition.
  • The Supreme Court decision agreed that there was no constitutional right to a free public education. Instead, the argument focused on whether children of illegal immigrants had a right, under the U.S. Constitution, to be treated like everyone else, regardless of their parents' legal status in the United States. In Texas, all children did have a right to attend public schools at no cost, and the Supreme Court ruled that children of illegal immigrants had the same right.
  • Can people be treated differently depending on whether they are citizens or immigrants, or on whether they are living in the United States legally or not? In some cases, the answer is yes—noncitizens cannot vote, for example, and illegal immigrants can be sent out of the country. But in other cases, the answer is no. Plyler addressed the issue of public education. The Fourteenth Amendment has also been applied to many other areas of life, such as giving noncitizens the right to a trial by jury in criminal cases.

Excerpt from Plyler v. Doe

The question presented by these cases is whether, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Texas may deny to undocumented school-age children the free public education that it provides to children who are citizens of the United States or legally admitted aliens….

Since the late 19th century, the United States has restricted immigration into this country. Unsanctioned entry into the United States is a crime …, and those who have entered unlawfully are subject to deportation…. But despite the existence of these legal restrictions, a substantial number of persons have succeeded in unlawfully entering the United States, and now live within various States, including the State of Texas.

In May 1975, the Texas Legislature revised its education laws to withhold from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not "legally admitted" into the United States. The 1975 revision also authorized local school districts to deny enrollment in their public schools to children not "legally admitted" to the country….

[Plyler v. Doe] is a class action, filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in September 1977, on behalf of certain school-age children of Mexican origin residing in Smith County, Tex., who could not establish that they had been legally admitted into the United States. The action complained of the exclusion of plaintiff children from the public schools of the Tyler Independent School District. The Superintendent and members of the Board of Trustees of the School District were named as defendants; the State of Texas intervened as a party-defendant….

The Fourteenth Amendment provides that "no State shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." … Appellants argue at the outset that undocumented aliens, because of their immigration status, are not "persons within the jurisdiction" of the State of Texas, and that they therefore have no right to the equal protection of Texas law. We reject this argument. Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is surely a "person" in any ordinary sense of that term. Aliens, even aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful, have long been recognized as "persons" guaranteed due process of law by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments…. Indeed, we [the Supreme Court] have clearly held that the Fifth Amendment protects aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful from invidious discrimination by the Federal Government….

The children who are plaintiffs in these cases are special members of this underclass. Persuasive arguments support the view that a State may withhold its beneficence from those whose very presence within the United States is the product of their own unlawful conduct. These arguments do not apply with the same force to classifications imposing disabilities on the minor children of such illegal entrants. At the least, those who elect to enter our territory by stealth and in violation of our law should be prepared to bear the consequences, including, but not limited to, deportation. But the children of those illegal entrants are not comparably situated. Their "parents have the ability to conform their conduct to societal norms," and presumably the ability to remove themselves from the State's jurisdiction; but the children who are plaintiffs in these cases "can affect neither their parents' conduct nor their own status." …Even if the State found it expedient to control the conduct of adults by acting against their children, legislation directing the onus of a parent's misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice….

Public education is not a "right" granted to individuals by the Constitution…. But neither is it merely some governmental "benefit" indistinguishable from other forms of social welfare legislation. Both the importance of education in maintaining our basic institutions, and the lasting impact of its deprivation on the life of the child, mark the distinction. The "American people have always regarded education and [the] acquisition of knowledge as matters of supreme importance." …We have recognized "the public schools as a most vital civic institution for the preservation of a democratic system of government" … and as the primary vehicle for transmitting "the values on which our society rests." …And these historic "perceptions of the public schools as inculcating fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system have been confirmed by the observations of social scientists." … In addition, education provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all. In sum, education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society. We cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by our Nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests.

In addition to the pivotal role of education in sustaining our political and cultural heritage, denial of education to some isolated group of children poses an affront to one of the goals of the Equal Protection Clause: the abolition of governmental barriers presenting unreasonable obstacles to advancement on the basis of individual merit. Paradoxically, by depriving the children of any disfavored group of an education, we foreclose the means by which that group might raise the level of esteem in which it is held by the majority. But more directly, "education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society." …Illiteracy is an enduring disability. The inability to read and write will handicap the individual deprived of a basic education each and every day of his life. The inestimable toll of that deprivation on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and the obstacle it poses to individual achievement, make it most difficult to reconcile the cost or the principle of a status-based denial of basic education with the framework of equality….

… More is involved in these cases than the abstract question whether 21.031 discriminates against a suspect class, or whether education is a fundamental right. Section 21.031 imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. The stigma of illiteracy will mark them for the rest of their lives. By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation. In determining the rationality of 21.031, we may appropriately take into account its costs to the Nation and to the innocent children who are its victims. In light of these countervailing costs, the discrimination contained in 21.031 can hardly be considered rational unless it furthers some substantial goal of the State….

We are reluctant to impute to Congress the intention to withhold from these children, for so long as they are present in this country through no fault of their own, access to a basic education…. But in the area of special constitutional sensitivity presented by these cases, and in the absence of any contrary indication fairly discernible in the present legislative record, we perceive no national policy that supports the State in denying these children an elementary education.

… There is no evidence in the record suggesting that illegal entrants impose any significant burden on the State's economy. To the contrary, the available evidence suggests that illegal aliens under-utilize public services, while contributing their labor to the local economy and tax money to the state fisc…. The dominant incentive for illegal entry into the State of Texas is the availability of employment; few if any illegal immigrants come to this country, or presumably to the State of Texas, in order to avail themselves of a free education. Thus, even making the doubtful assumption that the net impact of illegal aliens on the economy of the State is negative, we think it clear that "charging tuition to undocumented children constitutes a ludicrously ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration," at least when compared with the alternative of prohibiting the employment of illegal aliens….

If the State is to deny a discrete group of innocent children the free public education that it offers to other children residing within its borders, that denial must be justified by a showing that it furthers some substantial state interest. No such showing was made here. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals in each of these cases is


What happened next …

The court's decision favoring children of illegal immigrants led to a new set of restrictions on school districts. The court's ruling that schools could not discriminate against children on the basis of their status as immigrants had implications far beyond whether such children could enroll as students. Legal experts advised schools that they could not take a role in cooperating with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, whose job is to enforce federal immigration laws. For example, schools were banned from asking students about the legal status of their parents, or from letting federal agents interview students while at school. Any actions taken towards a student who was, or might be, the child of an illegal immigrant were regarded as discriminatory, and were banned under the court's decision.

Did you know …

  • In 1994, citizens of California voted in favor of a law titled Proposition 184, intended to deprive illegal immigrants of any benefits paid by the state, such as welfare—and including public schooling for the children of illegal immigrants. (Under California law, citizens can propose laws and vote on them in a general election, a process normally carried out by elected representatives in the state legislature.) Although the voters of California approved the law, federal courts barred the state from carrying out its provisions, in large part because doing so would violate the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Plyler v. Doe.

For More Information


Dudley, William, ed. Illegal Immigration: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2002.

Irons, Peter, ed. May It Please the Court: Courts, Kids, and the Constitution. New York: New Press, 2000.

Mauro, Tony. Illustrated Great Decisions of the Supreme Court. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2000.

Nevins, Joseph. Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of the U.S.-Mexican Boundary. New York: Routledge, 2000.


Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. "Immigrants Out! The New Nativism and the Anti-Immigrant Impulse in the United States" (book review). Journal of American Ethnic History (Summer 1998): p. 114.

Unz, Ron. "California and the End of White America." Commentary (November 1999): p. 17.

Web Sites

"Plyler v. Doe" (full text of the opinion). (accessed on February 29, 2004).