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A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States

1982: Plyler v. Doe

"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."

—Justice Brennan

Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Nursery school playground. Robstown camp, Texas. 1942. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1975, the State of Texas enacted section 21.031 of the Texas Education Code permitting public school districts to deny admission or charge tuition to undocumented children. However, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision in ;Plyler v. Doe struck down this section and ruled all children—regardless of their citizenship—were entitled to free public education under the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment

In1977, Tyler Independent School District charged $1000 per year to each child enrolled within the district who did not provide documentation of American citizenship. The Texas legislature’s section 21.031 justified this decision, stating that free public education was only accessible to children residing legally within the state’s borders. Peter Roos and Vilma Martinez from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) brought a class action suit to the district court.

According to the State of Texas, undocumented children were not “within the jurisdiction” of the state and thus they were disqualified from public education. William Wayne Justice, the federal district judge, declared Texas’ rationale from section 21.031 unconstitutional. Tyler ISD appealed to the fifth circuit court of appeals, which reaffirmed the lower court’s decision by finding a violation of rights and equal protection. The school district disagreed with the court's ruling and appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

On June 15, 1982, Justice Brennan wrote the majority decision, which ruled against Texas’ policy of denying or charging admission to undocumented children, and noted that the Equal Protection under the 14th Amendment are provisions that are “universal in their application, to all persons within the territorial jurisdiction, without regard to any differences of race, color, or nationality”. Additionally, the court held that states could not deprive children from an education, request citizenship documentation,or hold children liable for their parent’s actions.


1975 The State of Texas enacts section 21.031 to the Texas Education Code withholding public school admission or charging school tuition for undocumented children
July 1977 Tyler ISD charges a $1,000 tuition fee for children who do not submit documentation of citizenship
September 6, 1977 MALDEF attorneys file a class action lawsuit on behalf of four families whose children are affected by Tyler ISD’s implementation of section 21.031.
September 14, 1978 Judge Justice rules section 21.031 of the Texas Education Code unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment
October 10, 1978 Tyler ISD issues an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
October 20, 1980 The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirms the lower court’s decision
December 18, 1980 The State of Texas and Tyler ISD appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court
June 15, 1982 In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court rules section 21.031 of the Texas Education Code unconstitutional and holds schools responsible for extending the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to undocumented immigrant children


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