Plyler v. Doe

Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), was a case in which the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a state statute denying funding for education to unauthorized immigrant children and simultaneously struck down a municipal school district's attempt to charge unauthorized immigrants an annual $1,000 tuition fee for each undocumented immigrant student to compensate for the lost state funding. The Court found that where states limit the rights afforded to people (specifically children) based on their status as immigrants, this limitation must be examined under an intermediate scrutiny standard to determine whether it furthers a "substantial" state interest.
The application of Plyler v. Doe has been limited to K-12 schooling. Other court cases and legislation such as Toll v. Moreno 441 U.S. 458 (1979) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 have allowed some states to pass statutes that deny illegal alien students eligibility for in-state tuition, scholarships, or even bar them from enrollment at public colleges and universities.

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-to-4 majority of the Supreme Court found that this policy was in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, as unauthorized 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.

The court majority found that the Texas law was "directed against children, and imposed its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control" -- namely, the fact of their having been brought illegally into the United States by their parents. 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." The majority refused to accept that any substantial state interest would be served by discrimination on this basis, and it struck down the Texas law.

Texas officials had argued that unauthorized immigrants were not "within the jurisdiction" of the state and could thus not claim protections under the Fourteenth Amendment. The court majority rejected this claim, finding instead that "no plausible distinction with respect to Fourteenth Amendment 'jurisdiction' can be drawn between resident aliens whose entry into the United States was lawful, and resident aliens whose entry was unlawful." The dissenting opinion also rejected this claim, agreeing with the Court that "the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment applies to aliens who, after their illegal entry into this country, are indeed physically 'within the jurisdiction' of a state." The dissent simply concluded that the distinction the statute drew should survive an equal protection attack.

The dissent agreed in principle that it was unwise for unauthorized immigrant children to be denied a public education, but the four dissenting justices argued that the Texas law was not so objectionable as to be unconstitutional; that this issue ought to be dealt with through the legislative process; that "the Constitution does not provide a cure for every social ill, nor does it vest judges with a mandate to try to remedy every social problem"; and that the majority was overstepping its bounds by seeking "to do Congress' job for it, compensating for congressional inaction".

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