Plyler v. Doe

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Plyler v. Doe

Legal decision

By: U.S. Supreme Court

Date: June 5, 1982

Source: Plyler v. Doe. 457 US 202 (1982).

About the Author: The Supreme Court of the United States is the nation's highest court, currently with eight associate justices and one chief justice. In 1982, the associate justices were Thurgood Marshall, John Paul Stevens, William J. Brennan, Lewis F. Powell, William H. Rehnquist, Byron R. White, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Harry A. Blackmun; the chief justice was Warren E. Burger. The majority opinion in the Plyler v. Doe case was delivered by Justice William J. Brennan.


In 1975, Texas passed a law that cut funds for the education of the children of illegal immigrants and authorized school districts to not enroll these children. Lawyers filed a class-action suit in 1975 in a Federal District Court on behalf of Mexican children denied education in the Tyler, Texas school district. The suit claimed that the new Texas law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that "No State … shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law." (All cases brought on appeal to the U.S. Constitution are handled in Federal courts.).

In 1980, the U.S. District Court found against Texas. Texas appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (also a Federal court), which again decided in favor of the plaintiffs (the Mexican children). Texas appealed a second time, its last recourse being the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1982, the Supreme Court upheld the judgment of the two lower courts by a 5-4 vote. Blackmun, Brennan, Marshall, Powell, and Stephens were in the majority, with Burger, White, Rehnquist, and O'Connor in the minority.




A Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not legally admitted" into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 210-230.

(a) The illegal aliens who are plaintiffs in these cases challenging the statute may claim the benefit of the Equal Protection Clause, which provides that no State shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is a "person" in any ordinary sense of that term. This Court's prior cases recognizing that illegal aliens are "persons" protected by the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which Clauses do not include the phrase "within its jurisdiction," cannot be distinguished on the asserted ground that persons who have entered the country illegally are not "within the jurisdiction" of a State even if they are present within its boundaries and subject to its laws. Nor do the logic and history of the Fourteenth Amendment support such a construction. Instead, use of the phrase "within its jurisdiction" confirms the understanding that the Fourteenth Amendment's protection extends to anyone, citizen or stranger, who is subject to the laws of a State, and reaches into every corner of a State's territory. Pp. 210-216.

(b) The discrimination contained in the Texas statute cannot be considered rational unless it furthers some substantial goal of the State. Although undocumented resident aliens cannot be treated as a "suspect class," and although education is not a "fundamental right," so as to require the State to justify the statutory classification by showing that it serves a compelling governmental interest, nevertheless the Texas statute imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. These children can neither affect their parents" conduct nor their own undocumented status. [457 U.S. 202, 203] The deprivation of public education is not like the deprivation of some other governmental benefit. Public education has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage; the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement. In determining the rationality of the Texas statute, its costs to the Nation and to the innocent children may properly be considered. Pp. 216-224.

(c) The undocumented status of these children vel non does not establish a sufficient rational basis for denying them benefits that the State affords other residents. It is true that when faced with an equal protection challenge respecting a State's differential treatment of aliens, the courts must be attentive to congressional policy concerning aliens. But in the area of special constitutional sensitivity presented by these cases, and in the absence of any contrary indication fairly discernible in the legislative record, no national policy is perceived that might justify the State in denying these children an elementary education. Pp. 224-226.

(d) Texas" statutory classification cannot be sustained as furthering its interest in the "preservation of the state's limited resources for the education of its lawful residents." While the State might have an interest in mitigating potentially harsh economic effects from an influx of illegal immigrants, the Texas statute does not offer an effective method of dealing with the problem. Even assuming that the net impact of illegal aliens on the economy is negative, charging tuition to undocumented children constitutes an ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration, at least when compared with the alternative of prohibiting employment of illegal aliens. Nor is there any merit to the suggestion that undocumented children are appropriately singled out for exclusion because of the special burdens they impose on the State's ability to provide high-quality public education. The record does not show that exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the State. Neither is there any merit to the claim that undocumented children are appropriately singled out because their unlawful presence within the United States renders them less likely than other children to remain within the State's boundaries and to put their education to productive social or political use within the State.

JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

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.


Sheer incapability or lax enforcement of the laws barring entry into this country, coupled with the failure to establish an effective bar to the employment of undocumented aliens, has resulted in the creation of a substantial "shadow population" of illegal migrants—numbering in the millions—within our borders. This situation raises the specter of a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor, but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents. The existence of such an underclass presents most difficult problems for a Nation that prides itself on adherence to principles of equality under law.

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.

"[V]isiting … condemnation on the head of an infant is illogical and unjust. Moreover, imposing disabilities on the … child is contrary to the basic concept of our system that legal burdens should bear some relationship to individual responsibility or wrongdoing. Obviously, no child is responsible for his birth and penalizing the … child is an ineffectual—as well as unjust—way of deterring the parent."

Of course, undocumented status is not irrelevant to any proper legislative goal. Nor is undocumented status an absolutely immutable characteristic since it is the product of conscious, indeed unlawful, action. But 21.031 is directed against children, and imposes its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control. It is thus difficult to conceive of a rational justification for penalizing these children for their presence within the United States. Yet that appears to be precisely the effect of 21.031.

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." "[A]s … pointed out early in our history,… some degree of education is necessary to prepare citizens to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system if we are to preserve freedom and independence." 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 embodied in the Equal Protection Clause. What we said 28 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education, still holds true:.

"Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."


These well-settled principles allow us to determine the proper level of deference to be afforded 21.031. Undocumented aliens cannot be treated as a suspect class because their presence in this country in violation of federal law is not a "constitutional irrelevancy." Nor is education a fundamental right; a State need not justify by compelling necessity every variation in the manner in which education is provided to its population. But 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.


It is the State's principal argument, and apparently the view of the dissenting Justices, that the undocumented status of these children vel non establishes a sufficient rational basis for denying them benefits that a State might choose to afford other residents. The State notes that while other aliens are admitted "on an equality of legal privileges with all citizens under non-discriminatory laws," the asserted right of these children to an education can claim no implicit congressional imprimatur. Indeed, in the State's view, Congress" apparent disapproval of the presence of these children within the United States, and the evasion of the federal regulatory program that is the mark of undocumented status, provides authority for its decision to impose upon them special disabilities. Faced with an equal protection challenge respecting the treatment of aliens, we agree that the courts must be attentive to congressional policy; the exercise of congressional power might well affect the State's prerogatives to afford differential treatment to a particular class of aliens. But we are unable to find in the congressional immigration scheme any statement of policy that might weigh significantly in arriving at an equal protection balance concerning the State's authority to deprive these children of an education.

To be sure, like all persons who have entered the United States unlawfully, these children are subject to deportation. But there is no assurance that a child subject to deportation will ever be deported. An illegal entrant might be granted federal permission to continue to reside in this country, or even to become a citizen. In light of the discretionary federal power to grant relief from deportation, a State cannot realistically determine that any particular undocumented child will in fact be deported until after deportation proceedings have been completed. It would of course be most difficult for the State to justify a denial of education to a child enjoying an inchoate federal permission to remain.

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. In other contexts, undocumented status, coupled with some articulable federal policy, might enhance state authority with respect to the treatment of undocumented aliens. 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.


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 Affirmed.


Illegal immigration has been a contentious issue in the U.S. since the early twentieth century. Although both legal and illegal immigrants have been a necessary component of the U.S. economy, the latter have engendered much resentment on the part of some citizens, who believe that their jobs are threatened by unfair, low-wage competition and that immigrants enjoy services and benefits funded by citizen taxpayers. (Many illegal immigrants pay income tax because it is deducted from their paycheck.) In recent decades, politicians have responded to this sentiment at the state and federal levels with measures designed to restrict government-supplied services to immigrants. The 1975 Texas Alien Children Education Act—over-turned by Plyler v. Doe—was one such measure.

Children who are born in the United States are, according to the Fourteenth Amendment, citizens, and there is little controversy about whether they must receive all benefits provided by government: children born outside the U.S. to non-citizens are non-citizens.

Plyler v. Doe is one leg of a tripod of federal cases that govern the schooling in the U.S. of children who do not speak English fluently or at all. In Lau v. Nichols (1973), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that non-English speaking students must be taught English in order to have equal access to education. In Castenada v. Pickard (1981), a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals set standards for judging whether a school's program to teach non-English-speaking students is adequate. Plyler v. Doe, by ruling that undocumented children have a right to the same education as citizen children, effectively required schools to apply Lau v. Nichols and Castenada v. Pickard to undocumented children.

Plyler v. Doe defines the only major service to illegal immigrant children that is constitutionally protected: public-school education through high school. In fact, children of illegal immigrants are not only allowed but required to attend school while they are in the U.S. Other services can be and are denied by various laws, but not education. A number of laws seeking to restrict benefits to immigrants were passed by state legislatures in the 1990s and early 2000s. For example, in 1994, California voters enacted Proposition 187, which was described on its ballot argument as "the first giant stride in ultimately ending the ILLEGAL ALIEN invasion." This proposition sought to cut off all medical and public services for undocumented non-citizens and to deny their children public education. The law was overturned in U.S. Federal District Court that same year, partly because Plyler v. Doe indicated that the denial-of-education provision in Proposition 187 was unconstitutional.

In 2004, Proposition 200 passed in Arizona. It requires employees of all state and federal agencies to verify the immigration status of those receiving benefits—including maternity health clinic services for pregnant women—and criminalizes failure to do so. Because of Plyler v. Doe and the fate of California's Proposition 187, the Arizona law does not attempt to block the education of undocumented children.

In 2006, there were approximately twelve million undocumented aliens in the U.S.—about one worker in twenty—and the U.S. Congress was considering highly controversial immigration-related legislation that would enact more severe penalties for undocumented immigrants. Possible measures include building a large wall along the U.S.-Mexican border, legalizing the status of long-term residents of the United States despite originally illegal status, and criminalizing the provision of aid to illegal immigrants by priests, social workers, or anyone else. Consideration of the bill by Congress in early 2006 elicited record-setting mass protest marches in some U.S. cities.



Gordan F. Ewell, ed. Mexico: Migration, U.S. Economic Issues and Counter Narcotic Efforts. New York: Novinka, 2005.


Glanton, Dahleen. "Illegal Immigrants Brace for State Laws." Chicago Tribune (April 10, 2006).

Mailman, Stlaney. "California's Proposition 187 and Its Lessons." New York Law Journal (January 3, 1995).

Web sites

National Immigration Law Center. "Most State Proposals to Restrict Benefits for Immigrants Failed in 2005." November 21, 2005. 〈〉 (accessed May 12, 2006).