As Gov. Greg Abbott pointed out in a controversial tweet, five liberals on the U.S. Supreme ruled (in 1982) that Texas (as well as every other state) had to provide and fund public education for the children of undocumented immigrants. But in his haste to pander to the racism, fear and bigotry that is growing in this state and country, he didn’t tell the whole story.
The case, Plyler v. Doe, was brought on behalf of a group of students from Mexico after the Tyler Independent School District adopted a policy requiring undocumented students to pay tuition. Tyler ISD was acting under a 1975 Texas law allowing districts to deny admission to undocumented immigrants.
The five high court justices in the majority based their ruling on the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says in part, “No State shall…deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This is known as the Equal Protection Clause. The majority found that the Tyler district had no rational basis to deny children a public education based on their immigration status, considering the harm that such a policy would inflict on the children and the entire society. The five justices wrote: “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.” They also determined that punishing children for their parents’ actions in bringing them illegally into the United States “does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.”
If you accept Abbott’s tweet as the definitive word on this issue, you may be led to think that the four other Supreme Court justices at the time believed that states should be allowed to ban undocumented immigrants from attending public schools. If so, you would be mistaken.
As the American Immigration Council points out in its analysis of the case, the dissenting justices – including such historic non-liberals as Warren Burger and William Rehnquist – pointed out that it “is senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children – including [unauthorized immigrants] – of an elementary education,” in part because “the long-range costs of excluding any children from the public schools may well outweigh the costs of educating them.”
Not to mention the fact that many immigrants, when educated, are more productive and may pay more taxes than some native-born Americans.
The Supreme Court minority would have allowed school districts to charge undocumented students tuition. Despite the difference over tuition, though, the entire nine-member Supreme Court recognized the critical importance of making a public education available to all children, regardless of immigration status.