May 24, 2012 -- June 15 marks the 30th anniversary of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that required public school districts to educate all K-12 children regardless of their citizenship status. In Plyler v. Doe, the court struck down a 1975 Texas statute that withheld state funding for educating the children of undocumented aliens and allowed school districts to deny their enrollment. The court decided 5-4 that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The controversial decision did not assert the Preemption Clause which might have headed off immigration-related legislation in several states. University of Houston Law Center Professor Michael A. Olivas, an expert on education and immigration law, wrote a book on the decision, No Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Children, published by NYU Press in 2011. Olivas, who holds the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law and is director of the Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance at the Law Center, answered a few questions about the ruling, its impact during the past 30 years, and the future course of immigration.
Q. Why was Plyler v. Doe such an important decision?
In the end, Plyler is an example of our better angels. Re-reading the case today draws attention to the important issues of incorporation of outsiders into our communities, the strains in the U.S. polity, and the unrelenting meanness of the restrictionists who are still fighting this battle more than 30 years later. Most educators are drawn to the story’s narrative arc: innocent children brought to a new country where their families live in the shadows. In our society, then as now, we do not punish our children for the transgressions of their parents. The decision was the best our country has to offer: compassion, a fierce belief in reducing inequality, and political and personal courage.
Q. Has it had the desired effect on the level of education in today’s society? Do you see its extension in passage of the Dream Act anytime soon?
The ongoing debates in the Republican primaries over the DREAM Act — which would provide conditional citizenship to certain undocumented college students — have revealed a great divide on what to do about these children when they reach college age. Recall how Gov. Perry’s immigrant tuition policies, allowing undocumented Texas college students to pay in-state tuition, ran afoul of his opponents in the GOP primary. Herman Cain, in contrast, foolishly advocated for an electrified fence. And Senator Marco Rubio has made several proposals, some of which are semi-DREAM Act, or the DREAM Act in a slumber, which would not give a pathway to eventual permanent residency.
Q. How have educational systems, especially in border states, been affected by the ruling?
Most states are glad to have more children, as it portends a better demographic balance and growth. These kids will stay, and will be ours, so we had better be smart about education and integrating them into our society. This is true of Latino children generally, as well as the undocumented. When President Reagan and Congress enacted comprehensive immigration reform in 1986, it was possible for many of these children to become citizens. Even early opponents such as James Plyler, the Tyler, Texas, superintendent, later indicated that he was happy the case turned out as it did, inasmuch as these children were permitted to stay and get an education.
Q. The issue of federal vs. state jurisdiction over immigration policy and border control might be at least partially decided in June with a ruling on Arizona’s SB1070. How do you see that playing out?
State laws do not wisely address the issues — they violate federal law and overreact. They have also shown the interconnectedness and globalization of migrant and farm labor in a way no other means could have. Only federal comprehensive immigration reform can work — we cannot have 50 state immigration policies, any more than we can have 50 foreign policies or forms of currency. The US Supreme Court recently heard the challenge to the Arizona nativist statute, so restrictionist challenges to federal power are still in play. I predict long and winding roads and many cases until this issue has played out in the courts.
Q. Are the nation’s “racial relations” better or worse since Plyler v. Doe was decided?
The case continues to require vigilance because some states still attempt to enact their own laws on the schooling of undocumented children, as Alabama did when it passed a statute requiring registration of its schoolchildren. The legislators just wanted to put the fear of God (and “La Migra” – the immigration authorities) into the hearts of the parents, who were lured to Alabama to do the backbreaking work that others don’t do. The courts enjoined the provisions, although the desired damage had been done: frightened parents removed their children from the schools. In another recent incident, a Texas schoolteacher admonished a child that he should “go back to Mexico.” These kinds of events are newsworthy because they are relatively rare. But the fact is many of the targeted children excel in their academic and personal endeavors and win competitions and awards.
Q. What do you see in the future of immigration policy?
We desperately need to enact comprehensive immigration reform, and until then, we need a robust DREAM Act to allow us to keep the benefits of these precious children in our community, or we need the Obama Administration to enact prosecutorial discretion and work authorization to allow these DREAMers to integrate themselves into society. We also need their talents and striving.
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