‘Long live Plyler v. Doe’: Historic case that guarantees public education to all kids turns 40

‘Long live Plyler v. Doe’: Historic case that guarantees public education to all kids turns 40

The Latino families that launched the landmark lawsuit that guaranteed a public school education to all children regardless of immigration status went to court at great risk to themselves. An NBC News report marking the 40th anniversary of the Plyler v. Doe case this week said that when one of the four Texas families went to court to testify, they took their belongings with them because they were afraid they’d be deported.

The case would eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices sided with the families and their children in a 5-4 decision. Plyler v. Doe ”changed the nation,” said MALDEF President Thomas A. Saenz in a statement received by Daily Kos. The Latino civil rights organization represented families in the case. “By ensuring equitable access to public school, the decision ensured that millions of children could dream of a better future for themselves and their families.”

RELATED STORY: Latino group that won historic Plyler v. Doe case condemns Abbott as ‘irresponsible and desperate’

The case that would eventually result in Plyler vs. Doe began 45 years ago when Alfredo Lopez was sent home from elementary school, NBC News reports. Texas had taken numerous steps to block undocumented kids from school, including allowing school districts to deny enrollment and charge undocumented families an exorbitant $1,000 in tuition. Four families sued with MALDEF’s help.

“In 1977, MALDEF filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Texas law that sought to exclude undocumented children from the public schoolhouse by charging tuition,” the civil rights group said. It was a risky move for the families, as NBC News’ Raul Reyes noted. “While a judge allowed the families to present their case under the pseudonym of ‘Doe,’ the parents were required to testify in open court,” NBC News said. 

There was no guarantee that they would not be targeted at a later time for their lawsuit. Remember that federal immigration officials have frequently targeted people who’ve criticized their policies, like a former Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient in 2017, a man who sued in 2018 after being sexually assaulted while in detention, and a Washington state organizer who was a target of officials for years.

Thankfully, the families in the Texas case won. “In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law was unconstitutional and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment,” MALDEF continued. “Because of the decision reached in Plyler, every child is guaranteed access to a free public K-12 school without fear that their immigration status can cut short their education.”

“The pressure was tremendous,” attorney Peter Roos tells Reyes. “I was confident in our case, but there was a sense that if we lost, other states would pass laws like Texas. So the outcome could affect millions of kids, and that was a heavy weight on my shoulders.”

But Texas still appears eager to challenge this win, four decades later. Emboldened by the right-wing Supreme Court’s draft forced birth ruling that is expected to overturn Roe v. Wade, Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened to challenge the historic victory.

Could Abbott (and his corrupt attorney general Ken Paxton) win? “MALDEF’s Saenz said that any such effort would be unlikely to succeed,” Reyes writes. “He pointed out that Plyler (unlike Roe v. Wade) has been incorporated into a federal statute.”

“Of course, the dream and the benefit remain incomplete until our Congress acts to protect all ‘Plyler kids’ as adults through immigration reform legislation to ensure that our nation fully embraces and welcomes these benefactors as the full-fledged citizens they have earned the right to be,” Saenz continued in the statement. The 40th anniversary of the decision comes as the DACA program celebrates its own 10th anniversary. In order for these beneficiaries to live freely, they also need permanent relief.

“When Plyler v. Doe was first filed, the constitutional principle achieved in 1982 was far from assured,” Saenz continued. “In the end, the plaintiffs had to first establish their own constitutional personhood before achieving the great victory of equity in public school access.  This ominously foreshadowed how far back some current demagogues would seek to push us as a democratic society. We will never go back. Long live Plyler v. Doe.”

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