Plyler v. Doe

By: Michael A. Olivas

Type: General Entry

Published: April 6, 2022

Updated: April 7, 2022

The 1982 United States Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe held, in a 5–4 decision, that states such as Texas could not charge tuition to undocumented children for free public K–12 education or prevent them from enrolling in public schools in districts where they resided. The case may be the high-water mark of immigrant rights in the United States and is likely among the most important educational and immigration cases decided in Texas.

In 1975 the Texas legislature passed a statute that led to the Plyler case. The initiative, section 21.031 of the Texas Education Code, allowed school districts to charge as much as $1,000 in 1975 rates to undocumented children or children of undocumented parents. While there was some resistance across the state to the practice of charging the families tuition for what was generally referred to as “free public schools,” the issue did not achieve national prominence until the late 1970s, when the San Antonio office of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) took up the federal case.  

MALDEF was especially interested in whether the Texas statute improperly affected the residency of undocumented students by requiring the parents or formal legal guardians to reside in the district. MALDEF was in search of an appropriate Texas federal-court vehicle to consolidate its modest victories on behalf of poor Mexican-origin persons and communities in many small state-court cases throughout the region.

Peter Roos, MALDEF’s national director for education litigation, and MALDEF president Vilma Martinez saw Plyler as the Mexican American Brown v. Board of Education (1954), as a vehicle to bring attention to the various strands of social exclusions that kept Mexican-origin persons in subordinate status. The Plyler case, however, primarily concerned education in Texas schools, long considered the most insensitive to Mexicans and Mexican Americans (see MEXICAN AMERICANS AND EDUCATION). The case incorporated various other elements in addition to tuition, including school leadership and community relations, as the political powerlessness of Chicanos was evident even in geographic areas where they were the predominant population.

Plyler also involved immigration status, an issue that often divided families on the basis of which side of the Rio Grande the mother had given birth. The case even held out the promise to unite the class interests between immigrant Mexicans and the larger, more established Mexican American community in a way that earlier, important cases litigating jury selection, school finance, and desegregation had not been able to achieve. Even though these cases all occurred in Texas over many years and had even included some significant victories, they had not appreciably improved the status of Chicanos or broken down the barriers for large numbers of the community.

Just as Thurgood Marshall had traveled the South to execute the Legal Defense Fund’s strategic approach toward dismantling segregated schooling and the American apartheid system, Martinez, Roos, and other MALDEF lawyers and board members had been seeking out the proper cases and plaintiffs for the federal case. They wanted to have a larger impact than they could expect from dozens of smaller cases in various state courts in the Southwest. Moreover, if Mexican American plaintiffs could not win the school-finance case in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodríguez (see RODRÍGUEZ V. SAN ANTONIO ISD) in 1973, with such demonstrable economic disparities as had been evident in that trial, MALDEF needed to win a big one, both to establish its credibility within and without the Chicano community and to serve its clients. In Texas, a case involving vulnerable school children being charged a thousand dollars for what was available to other children for free seemed to be that vehicle.

The MALDEF lawyers found their clients in Tyler, Texas, where brothers and sisters in the same family held different immigration status. Some had been born in Mexico, while those born in Texas held U. S. citizenship. Perhaps more important, they found an ally in federal district court judge William Wayne Justice, widely admired and reviled for his liberal views and progressive decisions. The Tyler Independent School District (ISD) began charging $1,000 per each undocumented child at the beginning of the 1977–78 school year. MALDEF attorneys filed a class action lawsuit on September 6, 1977, for the case that ultimately went to the U. S. Supreme Court under the name of Plyler v. Doe. James Plyler was the Tyler ISD superintendent, and the name Doe was the represented surname for the school children and their guardians. On September 14, 1978, after a two-day hearing, Judge Justice issued his opinion, striking down section 21.031 as applied to the Tyler ISD. He found that the state’s vague justifications for the statute—that this would save money for the schools and would discourage illegal immigration—were not rational and violated equal protection and that the attempt to regulate immigration at the state level violated the doctrine of preemption, which holds immigration to be a function solely of federal law.

MALDEF had carefully selected Tyler as the perfect federal venue for arguing its case: a progressive judge, sympathetic clients, and a rural area where the media glare would not be as great. In addition, in Tyler the case could be made that excluding the small number of undocumented children (the practical effect of charging each tuition of one thousand dollars) would actually lose money for the district, inasmuch as the state’s school-funding formula based allocation amounts on overall head-count attendance. In a large urban school district or a border school district, the fact questions and statistical proofs would be more complex and expensive to litigate for both sides. Moreover, because the Tyler trial had been a case of first impression at the federal level, the state’s legal strategy had not been as sophisticated as it would be in another similar trial.

The issue of Plyler’s potential impact on other Texas school districts naturally arose during the trial as word spread to dozens of other communities and sparked many companion lawsuits. MALDEF and others turned to the federal courts so as to avoid having to litigate in multiple, hostile state venues, before elected state judges. The organization’s lawyers confronted questions about how best to mesh its efforts, including its response to the Plyler appeals filed by the Tyler ISD and the state of Texas and proceedings in other venues. The strategic path became clearer in September 1978, when the state’s largest school district, Houston ISD, faced a lawsuit in federal court filed by a group of local attorneys and another California-based public-interest law firm, with civil rights lawyer Peter Schey as lead counsel. By this time, with the good news spreading from the Tyler case, four cases also challenging Texas school districts had been filed in the Southern District of Texas and two in the Northern District. Moreover, the Eastern District court that had just decided Plyler faced six additional cases after the ruling. Rather than just suing the particular ISDs, these suits included as defendants the state of Texas, the Texas governor, the Texas Education Agency (the state agency that governed K–12 public education in the state), and that agency’s commissioner. Eventually, all these new cases were consolidated into In re Alien Children and tried in the Southern District of Texas in Houston, before Judge Woodrow Seals. Judge Seals held a twenty-four-day trial.

While the Plyler case had given the children a substantial victory, the sprawling cases presented an even broader assault on the system. Whereas Plyler had been narrowly focused on section 21.031 and solely on the Tyler ISD, these additional cases were brought by several different attorneys on many fronts, relying on several theories, hoping that they could replicate the victory Roos had carved out in his Tyler case. At this point, it became crucial that the various parties coordinate their efforts, because the defendants had deep pockets, legions of attorneys, and other advantages that gave them the staying power to defeat the plaintiffs at the trial and appellate levels.             

At the request of the state of Texas, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation eventually consolidated a number of the cases—but, significantly, not Plyler—into the In re Alien Children litigation, and Judge Seals rendered a favorable decision on the merits on July 21, 1980. The plaintiff schoolchildren prevailed most importantly on the issues of whether the state of Texas could enact a statute to limit inducements to immigration and whether equal protection applied to the undocumented in such an instance. Judge Seals determined that Texas’s concern for fiscal integrity was not a compelling state interest and that charging tuition to the parents or removing the children from school had not been shown to be necessary to improve education within the state. Most important, he concluded that section 21.031 had not been carefully tailored to advance the state interest in a constitutional manner.

In the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, meanwhile, Judge Justice’s Plyler decision was affirmed in October 1980, and in May 1981 the U. S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the matter.  The Fifth Circuit issued a summary affirmance of the consolidated Houston cases a few months later, and the Supreme Court combined the Texas appeals of both cases under the styling of Plyler v. Doe, handing Peter Roos the lead vehicle over Peter Schey’s cases. Although the newly-elected Ronald Reagan administration did not formally enter its amicus brief on the side of the plaintiffs and took no position on the crucial equal protection issue, it did not seek to overturn the lower court decisions and filed a brief that stressed the primacy of the federal government on immigration, a position that favored the schoolchildren.

On June 15, 1982, the Supreme Court gave Roos and Schey their win on all counts, by a 5–4 margin. Justice William Brennan, in his majority opinion striking down the statute, characterized the Texas argument for charging tuition as “nothing more than the assertion that illegal entry, without more, prevents a person from becoming a resident for purposes of enrolling his children in the public schools.” He employed an equal protection analysis to find that a state could not enact a discriminatory classification “merely by defining a disfavored group as non-resident.”

Justice Brennan dismissed the state’s first argument that the classification or subclass of undocumented Mexican children was necessary to preserve the state’s “limited resources for the education of its lawful residents.” This line of argumentation had been rejected in an earlier case, Graham v. Richardson (1971), in which the Supreme Court had held that the concern for preservation of Arizona’s resources alone could not justify an alienage classification used in allocating welfare benefits. In addition, he relied on the findings of fact from the Plyler trial: although the exclusion of all undocumented children might eventually result in some small savings to the state, those savings would be uncertain (given that federal and state allocations depended primarily on the number of children enrolled), and barring those children would “not necessarily improve the quality of education.”

The state also argued that it had enacted the legislation in order to protect itself from an influx of undocumented aliens and the resulting negative economic impact. The court acknowledged the concern but found that the statute was not tailored to address it: “…charging tuition to undocumented children constitutes a ludicrously ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration.” The court also noted that immigration and naturalization policy is within the exclusive powers of federal government.

Finally, the state maintained that it singled out undocumented children because their unlawful presence rendered them less likely to remain in the United States and therefore to be able to use the free public education they received in order to contribute to the social and political goals of the United States community. Justice Brennan distinguished the subclass of undocumented immigrants who had lived in the United States as a family, and for all practical purposes permanently, from the subclass of adults who enter the country alone, temporarily, to earn money. For those who remained with the intent of making the United States their home, “It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime.”

Prior to Plyler, the Supreme Court had never taken up the question of whether undocumented immigrants could seek Fourteenth Amendment equal protection. The Supreme Court had long held that they were “persons” for purposes of the Fourteenth Amendment and were protected by the due process provisions of the Fifth Amendment. However, Texas argued that because undocumented children were not “within its jurisdiction,” they were not entitled to equal protection. Justice Brennan rejected this line of reasoning, concluding that there “is simply no support for appellants’ suggestion that ‘due process’ is somehow of greater stature than ‘equal protection’ and therefore available to a larger class of persons.”

It was unclear at the time how long Plyler would last or how its implementation would fare across school districts, either in Texas or nationally. There have been formal plans to dismantle or undermine Plyler, such as California’s 1994 ballot measure Proposition 187, which would have overturned the case holding. The proposition and its restrictions on undocumented school children attendance were struck down by a federal court in LULAC v. Wilson (1998). In a 2012 case, United States v. Alabama, a state statute was enjoined by federal courts. Had the statute not been struck down, all undocumented schoolchildren in the state would have had to be reported in special surveys, designed to intimidate parents. In the sole federal initiative to overturn Plyler, the Gallegly Amendment (introduced by U. S. Representative Elton Gallegly of California) failed in 1996.

On June 15, 2012, the thirtieth anniversary of Plyler, President Barack Obama directed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—that the legal protection of deferred action, a form of prosecutorial discretion, be provided to long-term students, giving them employment authorization, lawful presence, and Social Security Numbers on a rolling two-year basis. The rise in undocumented college students has been possible because of Plyler, and as of 2020, eighteen states had passed or enacted laws to accord resident tuition to these students. The issue of illegal immigration and the school population remained a much-debated policy topic in the 2020s.

A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events in the United States—1982: Plyler v. Doe, Library of Congress Research Guides (, accessed April 5, 2022. Michael A. Olivas, No Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Schoolchildren (New York: New York University Press, 2012). Plyer v. Doe, MALDEF in History, December 1, 2018, MALDEF (, accessed April 5, 2022. Guadalupe San Miguel, Jr., "Let All of Them Take Heed": Mexican Americans and the Campaign for Educational Equality in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987). Pawel Styrna, “In-State Tuition for Illegal Aliens,” August 2020, Federation for American Immigration Reform (, accessed April 5, 2022. “The Supreme Court’s Decision Plyer v. Doe,” Education Week, June 23, 1982. United States Supreme Court, PLYLER V. DOE (1982), No. 80–1538, Argued: December 1, 1981, Decided: June 15, 1982, FindLaw (, accessed April 5, 2022. Richard R. Valencia, Chicano Students and the Courts: The Mexican American Legal Struggle for Educational Equality (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Michael A. Olivas, “Plyler v. Doe,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022,

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April 6, 2022
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