Plyler v. Doe

Plyler v. Doe, 457 US 202 (1982)


In 1975, Texas passed a statute denying education funding and allowing local districts to deny admission to public schools to undocumented aliens under a rational basis for government action. Texas brought a class-action lawsuit to the US Supreme Court in 1981. In 1977, a class-action suit was filed alleging that the Texas statute was unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Defendants argued that the cost of education for these students and deterrence served as a compelling government interest to deny admission. The District Court found the plaintiffs, and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this decision. The defendants appealed to the United States Supreme Court.


Whether consistent with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Texas may deny free public education to undocumented school-age children that it otherwise provides to citizens or legally admitted aliens.


5-4 for the respondent students. The Texas statute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.


In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Brennan and joined by Justices Marshall, Blackmun, Powell, and Stevens, the court reasoned that rational basis was an insufficient rationale for denying equal protection and that in re Alien Children Education Litigation, 501 F. Supp. 544. 7 The court held that “the absolute deprivation of education should trigger strict judicial scrutiny, particularly when the absolute deprivation is the result of complete inability to pay for the desired benefit.” Id., at 582. Additionally, undocumented immigrants were found to be “persons” as defined in the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore entitled to the due process provisions of the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth amendments.

Opinion and Comments

The majority argued that education is how culture and ideas are passed down to future generations. If children are not educated, it will leave them in poverty and illiteracy. Cases were cited indicating that illegal aliens are “persons” and entitled to equal protection under the fourteenth amendment: Shaughnessy v. Mezei (1953), Wong Wing v. United States (1896), and Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886).

With concurrence from Marshall, Blackmun, and Powell, Justice Brennan believes that while education is not a fundamental right in the Constitution, it is critical to success and may be inferred effectively as a right where the state makes education freely available. As such, because they are “persons” under the Fourteenth Amendment and there is no basis upon which to discriminate against them, they are entitled to equal protection – including equal access to and funding for educational services. The court stated that the Federal Government should have immigration reform to address immigration issues and that denying education was an ineffective remedy to illegal immigration.

Chief Justice Burger dissented with Justices White, Rehnquist, and O’Connor and indicated that Congress should change national immigration policies. They agreed that children should be afforded an education and that refusing to attend school would be morally wrong. However, the State of Texas has a right to differentiate between citizens that are there legally and those that are illegal. The Federal Government’s immigration policy does not provide rules for states to abide by. In short, the dissenting opinion argues that a combination of rational basis and states’ rights is enough for Texas to treat undocumented immigrants differently.

It is ironic that in 2019, the United States is still uncertain about its immigration policies. Congress has not passed comprehensive immigration reform and cannot agree with “Dreamers,” undocumented children brought to the US by their parents who cannot obtain in-state tuition from state universities. In 2012, President Obama began accepting applications from Dreamers through an executive order. In 2017, President Trump removed the order, leaving 700,000 young people in limbo.

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