Plyler v. Doe

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Plyler v. Doe
Argued December 1, 1981
Decided June 15, 1982
Full case nameJames Plyler, Superintendent, Tyler Independent School District, et al. v. John Doe, et al.
Citations457 U.S. 202 (more)
102 S. Ct. 2382; 72 L. Ed. 2d 786; 1982 U.S. LEXIS 124; 50 U.S.L.W. 4650
Case history
PriorJudgment for plaintiffs, 458 F. Supp. 569 (E.D. Tex. 1978); affirmed, 628 F.2d 448 (5th Cir. 1980)
SubsequentRehearing denied, 458 U.S. 1131 (1982)
Denial of public education to students not legally admitted into the country violates the Equal Protection Clause. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
Warren E. Burger
Associate Justices
William J. Brennan Jr. · Byron White
Thurgood Marshall · Harry Blackmun
Lewis F. Powell Jr. · William Rehnquist
John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor
Case opinions
MajorityBrennan, joined by Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, Stevens
DissentBurger, joined by White, Rehnquist, O'Connor
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. XIV; Tex. Educ. Code Ann. § 21.031

Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), was a landmark decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States struck down both a state statute denying funding for education of undocumented immigrant children in the United States and an independent school district's attempt to charge an annual $1,000 tuition fee for each student to compensate for lost state funding.[1] The Court found that any state restriction imposed on the rights afforded to children based on their immigration status must be examined under a rational basis standard to determine whether it furthers a substantial government interest.

The application of Plyler v. Doe has been limited to K–12 schooling. Other cases and legislation such as Toll v. Moreno 441 U.S. 458 (1979) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996[2] have allowed some states to pass statutes that deny illegal immigrant students eligibility for in-state tuition, scholarships, or enrollment at public colleges and universities.[3][4][5]


In 1975 Texas "prohibited the use of state funds for the education of children who had not been legally admitted to the U.S" (457 U.S.202).[6] The policy also allowed schools to deny enrollment of any "unauthorized" child seeking to attend the school. Then in 1977, the Tyler Independent School District instituted a policy mandating that foreign-born students who were not considered to be legally admitted to the United States were required to pay tuition. "Under the school district's policy, children were considered "legally admitted" if (1) they possessed documentation showing that they were legally present in the United States, or (2) federal immigration authorities confirmed they were in the process of securing such documentation."[7]


Revisions to education laws in Texas in 1975 withheld state funds for educating children who had not been legally admitted to the United States and authorized local school districts to deny enrollment to such students. A 5–4 majority of the Supreme Court found the policy to violate the Fourteenth Amendment, as illegal immigrant children are people "in any ordinary sense of the term" and therefore had protection from discrimination unless a substantial state interest could be shown to justify it.[6]

The majority found that the Texas law was "directed against children, and impose[d] its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control".[8] The majority also observed that denying the children in question a proper education would likely contribute to "the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime".[8] The majority did not find that any substantial state interest would be advanced by discrimination on that basis and so struck down the Texas law.

Texas officials had argued that illegal aliens were not "within the jurisdiction" of the state and thus could not claim protections under the Fourteenth Amendment. The majority rejected that claim and found that "no plausible distinction with respect to Fourteenth Amendment 'jurisdiction' can be drawn between resident immigrants whose entry into the United States was lawful, and resident immigrants whose entry was unlawful".[6]

In short, the most prominent takeaways from this case were that the Court reasoned that unauthorized immigrants and their children, although not technically citizens of the United States or Texas, are people "in any ordinary sense of the term" and, therefore, are afforded Fourteenth Amendment protections. Since the state law severely disadvantaged the children of illegal aliens by denying them the right to an education, and because Texas could not prove that the regulation was needed to serve a "compelling state interest," the Court struck down the law.[6]

Concurring opinions[edit]

Three of the four justices who joined the majority opinion written by Justice Brennan wrote their own concurring opinions.

Justice Marshall called specific attention to the fact that he believed the interest of an individual to pursue an education is fundamental and that this belief is amply supported by the unique status accorded public education by our society, and by the close relationship between education and some of our most basic constitutional values."[9]

Justice Blackmun noted that "when a state provides an education to some and denies it to others, it immediately and inevitably creates class distinctions of a type fundamentally inconsistent with" the purposes of the Equal Protection Clause because "an uneducated child is denied even the opportunity to achieve." When those children are members of an identifiable class, the state has created a separable and identifiable underclass."[8]

Justice Powell noted the uniqueness of this particular case. He highlighted that as long as this law stands a group of children is being denied access to education, not due to actions of their own, but because of a violation of the law by their parents.[9] "A legislative classification that threatens the creation of an underclass of future citizens and residents cannot be reconciled with one of the fundamental purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment."[6]

Dissenting opinions[edit]

Chief Justice Burger, joined by Justices White, Rehnquist, and O'Connor, wrote a dissenting opinion.

The four dissenting justices all agreed with the majority that it would be wrong to "tolerate creation of a segment of society made up of illiterate persons".[9] The dissenting opinion also rejected that claim and agreed with the Court that "the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to immigrants who, after their illegal entry into this country, are indeed physically 'within the jurisdiction' of a state".[10] However, in his dissent, Chief Justice Burger asserted that issues of whether or not to admit children of illegal immigrants should be delegated to Congress and not the judiciary, as it is more a policy issue than a constitutional one. Burger further argued that the "Equal Protection Clause does not mandate identical treatment of different categories of persons" and that Texas did in fact have a legitimate reason to seek to distinguish between individuals who were residing in the country legally versus illegally.[11]

William Rehnquist was so disgusted by the decision that he referred to illegal immigrant children as "wetbacks" in conference, which angered Thurgood Marshall, the only non-white justice on the court.[12]

This case was decided together with Texas v. Certain Named and Unnamed Alien Children.


In May 2022 Texas Governor Greg Abbott expressed interest in attempting to overturn the case, following the leak of the draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. The draft opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, would overturn Roe v. Wade on the basis that abortion rights were not explicitly protected in the Constitution and thus would allow states to determine whether to protect or restrict those rights. Abbott stated the same would apply to the rights to education for immigrants, which is only established by Plyler and not a constitutional right.[13][14][15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Court considers education for illegal immigrant children". The Telegraph (a newspaper in Nashua, New Hampshire). Associated Press. December 1, 1981.
  2. ^ "Financial Aid and Scholarships for Undocumented Students". March 5, 2020.
  3. ^ "College Board wants more help for illegal immigrants". Tysons Corner, VA: Gannett. July 22, 2009. ISSN 0734-7456. Archived from the original on April 15, 2014. Retrieved April 15, 2014.
  4. ^ Russell, Alene (August 2007). "In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants: States' Rights and Educational Opportunity" (PDF). American Association of State Colleges and Universities. p. 2.
  5. ^ "The 25th Anniversary of Plyler v. Doe: Access to Education and Undocumented Children". University of California at Berkeley: Berkeley Law. May 7, 2007. Archived from the original on July 15, 2010.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)". Justia Law. Retrieved February 4, 2022.
  7. ^ "Public Education for Immigrant Students: Understanding Plyler v. Doe". American Immigration Council. June 15, 2012. Retrieved February 4, 2022.
  8. ^ a b c "Plyler v. Doe". FindLaw. United States Supreme Court. Retrieved July 24, 2019.
  9. ^ a b c "Access to Education - Rule of Law". United States Courts. Retrieved February 5, 2022.
  10. ^ Monroe Leigh (January 1983). "Plyler v. Doe. 102 S.Ct. 2382". The American Journal of International Law. 77 (1): 151–153. doi:10.2307/2201208. JSTOR 2201208. S2CID 147622982.
  11. ^ "Plyler v. Doe". Ballotpedia. Retrieved February 5, 2022.
  12. ^ Stern, Seth; Wermiel, Stephen (October 4, 2010). Justice Brennan. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 9780547523897.
  13. ^ McKinley, Edward (May 5, 2022). "Gov. Abbott wants to ban unauthorized immigrants from Texas schools". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved May 5, 2022.
  14. ^ Goodman, J. David (May 5, 2022). "Texas Governor Ready to Challenge Schooling of Migrant Children". The New York Times. Retrieved May 15, 2022.
  15. ^ Griswold, Niki (May 4, 2022). "Abbott says Texas could 'resurrect' SCOTUS case requiring states to educate all kids". Austin American-Statesman. Retrieved May 15, 2022.

Further reading[edit]

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