Plyler v. Doe (1982)

Under the Equal Protection Clause, the Court struck down both a state statute denying funding for education to undocumented immigrant children and a municipal school district’s attempt to charge an annual $1,000 tuition fee for each student to compensate for lost state funding. (Two cases bundled together.)

Citation: 457 U.S. 202 (1982)
Date decided: Jun 15, 1982
Longer case name: Plyler, Superintendent, Tyler Independent School District, et al. v. Doe, Guardian, et al.
Law type: Civil
Jurisdiction level:Federal
State of origin: Texas
Topic(s):Equal protection, School finance, and Undocumented immigrants
Lists:Important cases and zGreatest hits (future)
Attorneys:Peter D. Roos (Harvard Center for Law and Education) argued the cause for appellees in No. 80-1538. With him on the brief were Larry Daves and Vilma S. Martinez. Peter A. Schey (Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, LAFLA) argued the cause for appellees in No. 80-1934. With him on the briefs were Al Campos, Larry Mealer, and Jane Swanson.
Others involved:Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance in both cases were filed by James J. Orlow for the American Immigration Lawyers Association; by Samuel Rabinove for the American Jewish Committee; by Bill Lann Lee for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; by the Edgewood Independent School District; by Peter B. Sandmann for the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco; by Michael K. Suarez for the Mexican American Bar Association of Houston; by Robert J. Kenney, Jr., for the National Education Association et al.; by Fred Fuchs for Texas Impact; and by Daniel Marcus and John F. Cooney for the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law et al. Thomas M. Griffin filed a brief for the California State Board of Education as amicus curiae urging affirmance in No. 80-1538. Briefs of amici curiae in No. 80-1934 were filed by Joyce D. Miller for the American Friends Service Committee et al.; and by Gwendolyn H. [457 U.S. 202, 205] Gregory, Thomas A. Shannon, and August W. Steinhilber for the National School Boards Association.
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Case Importance

Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director, ACLU, “School Is For Everyone: Celebrating Plyler v. Doe”, June 11, 2012. “Plyler’s importance today cannot be understated. As Linda Greenhouse observed in the New York Times, but for Plyler, ‘public school systems all over the country would be checking papers and tossing away their undocumented students like so much playground litter.’… “Plyler has also set the stage for today’s battles over higher education, as immigrant youth fight to defend their ability to enroll in colleges and university; access in-state tuition and scholarships and financial aid; and secure passage of the DREAM Act’s path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the United States as children and graduate from high school. “But Plyler’s legacy extends beyond the classroom. Plyler—like many Supreme Court decisions before it—is also crucial today for its recognition that due process and equal protection apply to everyone in America….”

Case Details

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)

(Together with No. 80-1934, Texas et al. v. Certain Named and Unnamed Undocumented Alien Children et al., also on appeal from the same court.)


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. Pp. 227-230.

No. 80-1538, 628 F.2d 448, and No. 80-1934, affirmed.

From the opinion

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.


Since the late 19th century, the United States has restricted immigration into this country. Unsanctioned entry into the United States is a crime, 8 U.S.C. 1325, and those who have entered unlawfully are subject to deportation, 8 U.S.C. 1251, 1252 (1976 ed. and Supp. IV). 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. Tex. Educ. Code Ann. 21.031 (Vernon Supp. 1981). 1 These cases involve constitutional challenges to those provisions. [457 U.S. 202, 206]

This 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. 2 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. After certifying a class consisting of all undocumented school-age children of Mexican origin residing within the School District, the District Court preliminarily enjoined defendants from denying a free education to members of the plaintiff class. In December 1977, the court conducted an extensive hearing on plaintiffs’ motion for permanent injunctive relief. [457 U.S. 202, 207]

In considering this motion, the District Court made extensive findings of fact. The court found that neither 21.031 nor the School District policy implementing it had “either the purpose or effect of keeping illegal aliens out of the State of Texas.” 458 F. Supp. 569, 575 (1978). Respecting defendants’ further claim that 21.031 was simply a financial measure designed to avoid a drain on the State’s fisc, the court recognized that the increases in population resulting from the immigration of Mexican nationals into the United States had created problems for the public schools of the State, and that these problems were exacerbated by the special educational needs of immigrant Mexican children. The court noted, however, that the increase in school enrollment was primarily attributable to the admission of children who were legal residents. Id., at 575-576. It also found that while the “exclusion of all undocumented children from the public schools in Texas would eventually result in economies at some level,” id., at 576, funding from both the State and Federal Governments was based primarily on the number of children enrolled. In net effect then, barring undocumented children from the schools would save money, but it would “not necessarily” improve “the quality of education.” Id., at 577. The court further observed that the impact of 21.031 was borne primarily by a very small subclass of illegal aliens, “entire families who have migrated illegally and – for all practical purposes – permanently to the United States.” Id., at 578. 3 Finally, the court noted that under current laws and practices “the illegal alien of today may well be the legal alien of tomorrow,” 4 and that without an education, these undocumented [457 U.S. 202, 208] children, “[a]lready disadvantaged as a result of poverty, lack of English-speaking ability, and undeniable racial prejudices, . . . will become permanently locked into the lowest socio-economic class.” Id., at 577.

The District Court held that illegal aliens were entitled to the protection of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that 21.031 violated that Clause. Suggesting that “the state’s exclusion of undocumented children from its public schools . . . may well be the type of invidiously motivated state action for which the suspect classification doctrine was designed,” the court held that it was unnecessary to decide whether the statute would survive a “strict scrutiny” analysis because, in any event, the discrimination embodied in the statute was not supported by a rational basis. Id., at 585. The District Court also concluded that the Texas statute violated the Supremacy Clause. 5 Id., at 590-592.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the District Court’s injunction. 628 F.2d 448 (1980). The Court of Appeals held that the District Court had erred in finding the Texas statute pre-empted by federal law. 6 With respect to [457 U.S. 202, 209] equal protection, however, the Court of Appeals affirmed in all essential respects the analysis of the District Court, id., at 454-458, concluding that 21.031 was “constitutionally infirm regardless of whether it was tested using the mere rational basis standard or some more stringent test,” id., at 458. We noted probable jurisdiction. 451 U.S. 968 (1981).

Last modified: 2023-01-20 03:48
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