Text books and notebooks line tables inside a classroom while an American flag hangs in the front of the class.
(Sergio Flores/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Next month marks the 40th anniversary of Plyler v. Doe, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring public schools to educate all children, regardless of their immigration status.

But with the high court potentially overturning decades-old precedent in the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sees a potential opening to undo Plyler, which originated in his state.

Abbott wants the federal government to cover the cost of educating undocumented children in Texas. He argues that the costs imposed on school districts are “extraordinary” and that “times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued.” Immigration and civil rights groups across Texas and the nation have dismissed the statement as inflammatory.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), spoke with Public Integrity about Abbott’s remarks and the chilling effect they could have on immigrant families, even those with U.S. citizen children.

MALDEF filed the original case on behalf of four immigrant families whose children were denied a public education in Tyler, Texas. The school district wanted to require undocumented parents to pay as much as $1,000 per child in tuition and fees for their children to attend public schools.

In his majority opinion, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan concluded that “education provides the basic tools by which individuals might lead economically productive lives to the benefit of us all” and that states could not constitutionally deny those opportunities to undocumented children.

The interview with Saenz has been edited for length and clarity.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (Courtesy of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund)

Q: Do Governor Abbott’s remarks about challenging Plyler v. Doe signal the start of an organized effort to chip away protections for undocumented children and children of immigrants?

[Abbott] is just grasping at different things that fall within a broader theme of being anti-immigrant that he seems to have built his re-election campaign around. Extending to Plyler [probably] wasn’t really where Abbot wanted to go, but he is pursuing an anti-immigrant campaign so this is certainly consistent with that. Targeting kids is never a good strategy. I don’t really think he wants to have thousands of kids not in school because that won’t get him any support.

Go back to the family separations at the border. This is where Donald Trump had to almost immediately backtrack from his own policies because images of kids engendered sympathy.

Now that said, if it is a considered decision, it may be because [of] this replacement theory from the racist right. The replacement theory is premised on increasing numbers. So children are in some ways an indication of increasing numbers of adults in the future. So to the extent he thought about it, perhaps it’s consistent with this racist replacement theory that’s caught hold in certain Republican circles.

Q: What has the Plyler v. Doe decision meant for children and families?

The Plyler kids, if you will, are the younger version of DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] recipients or what have been called Dreamers. These are those kids in kindergarten through 12th grade. So it has created opportunities, not just for themselves and their family members, but opportunities for their communities and neighborhoods.

Even though Plyler is 40 years old, there still is a lot of lack of knowledge: [that] this is well-established law, it is constitutional, and that it must be followed so that [people] can overcome the fears that may be engendered by really irresponsible comments like Abbott’s. For some, it may be enough to avoid sending kids to school. And that’s a great harm to everyone.

Q: MALDEF has warned districts in Arizona about potential Plyler v. Doe violations. Are public schools in some states intentionally making it difficult for undocumented children to enroll in school?

How prevalent is it? It’s hard to say. We tend to see violations in practice occur more in states and regions that are newer to having significant undocumented populations. So we don’t tend to see practice violations in states like Texas or California. It tends to be in other states that are more unfamiliar with having a significant undocumented population.

Generally speaking, all it takes is a letter [to resolve the matter]. Usually, the violations are not intended to be violations, so once it’s brought to their attention, schools change them. Indeed, in some cases, it’s just a lower-level employee deciding on their own to demand a Social Security number.

Ten years ago, the state of Alabama attempted to accomplish the same by collecting data on [the immigration status] of parents and children in public schools. … But it is rare that a school district [or state] … will attempt to begin to obtain data about people’s status. When you do that, it deters enrollment and attendance and so can have the same impact as a ban.

Early in the Trump administration, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said in a congressional hearing that whether to admit undocumented students was a decision to be made by each district, which is simply false under Plyler. And she had to immediately go back and backtrack, but even that kind of irresponsible comment has an impact.


Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you. 

Corey Mitchell

Corey Mitchell writes about racial, gender and economic inequality in education. Before joining...