The 14th Amendment prohibits any state from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The equal protection clause clearly requires that all American citizens must 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 of this case.
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 illegal aliens 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 legal defense attorneys on behalf of "certain school-age children of Mexican origin 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 rulings. 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 hearing, the attorneys for the Tyler school district, as well as the attorneys for the undocumented immigrant children, 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 a free public education to school-age children who have not been legally admitted into the United States 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.
- Undocumented immigrants should not be protected under the equal protection clause to the same degree as citizens and others living legally in the country.
- By denying free public schooling to children of undocumented immigrants, the Texas law serves a "substantial state interest," which justifies 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 the children in this case 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 other cases in which those who have entered the country illegally will demand 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 Congress and the state legislatures.
- It is not fair for Texas taxpayers to be held responsible 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 some state funds by educating 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 now 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. their brothers and sisters born in Mexico, however, are still in the U.S. 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
- In your opinion, who does the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment protect?
- Research the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Did this law seem to justify or not justify the idea of providing free public schooling to the children of undocumented immigrants?
- 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
- public schooling
- unemployment benefits
For Further Information
Illegal Aliens: To Teach or Not to Teach Background and pros and cons on the issue. By Becky Smith.
Illegal Immigrant Children: In or Out of Public Schools? An article outlining the positions of President Bill Clinton and candidate Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election. From Education Week.
Plyler v. Doe: A Visual A cartoon encapsulating the background to the case.
Writing the Appellate Brief: The Argument Instructions on how to write an argument to an appeals court. The instructions use the Plyler case as the example.
Undocumented Children in the Schools: Successful Policies and Strategies Suggestions on how schools should deal with undocumented students. From Eric Digests.
Book: Abraham, Henry J. Freedom and the Court. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
A C T I V I T Y
Plyler v. Doe
- 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.
- The attorney groups 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 ten arguments. Attorneys should be prepared to explain and answer questions on their arguments, not merely read them word for word from the article.
- One or 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.
- 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 procedures for the purpose of conducting this class simulation:
a. The chief justice reads the name of the case and the constitutional questions that both sides must address.
b. The chief justice asks 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 recognizes individual attorneys for the respondents who wish to make rebuttals or ask questions.
d. The attorneys for the respondents 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 recognizes attorneys for the purpose of presenting summary statements. The attomey(s) for the respondents goes first.
f. When the hearing has been concluded, the Supreme Court justices meet privately to discuss their answers 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 announces the vote on the two constitutional questions and each justice gives reasons for his or her votes.
U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)
By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court decided:
- The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applies "to anyone, citizen 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.
- 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 our 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 stated: "By definition, illegal aliens have no right whatever to be here, and the state may reasonably, and constitutionally, elect not to provide them with governmental services at the expense of those who are lawfully in the state."