This case is of tremendous significance because it upholds children's rights as human beings (i.e., human rights) to an education, particularly since this is not guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. -Angela
Tyler case opened schools to illegal migrants
06:35 PM CDT on Thursday, June 14, 2007
By KATHERINE LEAL UNMUTH / The Dallas Morning News
TYLER – All Jose Lopez wanted for his children was the education he did not receive in Mexico.
But when he and his wife, Lidia, tried to enroll them in elementary school here in 1977, they were turned away.
People on both sides of Plyler v. Doe share their memories of the case
Two years earlier, Texas lawmakers had changed the education code to prohibit using state funds to educate illegal immigrants. Some districts banned the students outright; others charged tuition.
Risking deportation, the Lopez family joined three others to fight Texas law. This week marks 25 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in their favor.
The landmark Plyler vs. Doe decision guaranteed illegal immigrants a free public education and established their civil rights and equal protection of the law under the 14th Amendment.
The case is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Brown vs. Board of Education, but it enjoys none of the same fame. It is absent from Texas history lessons. People in Tyler rarely speak of it.
Yet the Plyler case has been used as a defense against countless proposals aiming to deny rights to illegal immigrants.
It was among the reasons that a federal judge threw out California's Proposition 187, which voters approved in 1994 to prohibit public services, including education, for illegal immigrants.
It explains why bills introduced in the Texas Legislature to ban illegal immigrants from public schools never go anywhere.
Attorneys with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund even cited the case this year in contesting the controversial Farmers Branch ordinance to ban illegal immigrants from renting apartments in the city.
"It's a moral guide," former Tyler civil rights attorney Larry Daves said. "It says this country still stands for having an open door to children and creating opportunities. That we're going to be true to that longstanding notion in this country that education is the great equalizer."
The nation finds itself once again amid rising tensions over illegal immigration. Congress is searching for a solution.
People on both sides of Plyler v. Doe share their memories of the case
This past legislative session, state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, sponsored a bill that would have denied education benefits to illegal immigrants. He says filing that bill was a "mistake" because he can't change the precedent set by Plyler.
"I think it's outrageous the federal government has imposed on us free education and free health care – the largest unfunded mandate in the history of our nation," he said.
No one knows the exact costs, though the state comptroller estimated in December that Texas has 1.4 million illegal immigrants.
Federation for American Immigration Reform spokesman Ira Mehlman said nobody wants to see kids thrown out of school, but "we want to see a policy that convinces parents not to bring their kids here in the first place."
He said local ordinances such as the one in Farmers Branch show cities and taxpayers are feeling overburdened. Because they can't bar children from school, they try to make them leave town.
Whether they have that right is still being played out in the courts.
'They should be equal'
Mr. Lopez crossed the Mexican border illegally to work in a foundry in Tyler in 1969. Later, he brought his wife and four children (all are now citizens or permanent residents) and enrolled the oldest ones in school.
But in July 1977, district trustees voted to charge $1,000 tuition to illegal immigrant children. The Lopez family could not afford it.
"I am illiterate – I am a person that doesn't know anything," Mr. Lopez said in Spanish in an interview this month. But he believed what the district did was wrong.
"School is very important for all children, and they should not be discriminated against because they are Mexican or white or black," he said. "They should be equal."
On the first day of school in 1977, Tyler officials targeted children who could not speak English.
"It was a complete and total chaotic situation," recalled Michael McAndrew, a Catholic outreach worker who helped local Hispanics. "If you looked poor, you were put out of school."
Mr. McAndrew turned to Mr. Daves, who contacted MALDEF for help. They found four families willing to sue Superintendent Jim Plyler and the school board in federal court over the tuition policy. The families were known collectively in the case as "Doe" to protect their identities.
At 8 years old, Alfredo Lopez knew only that "they wouldn't let us go to school."
He remembers heading to the courthouse in the dark for the 6 a.m. hearing.
"It was early in the morning to keep the media away," said Mr. Lopez, who speaks with an East Texas twang. "My parents knew we could be deported. We had everything we owned waiting in the car."
The situation was grim, Mr. Daves said. A smattering of challenges to the law had already failed in state court.
But the attorneys were relying on the reputation of U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice, known for ruling in favor of the poor and minorities.
Judge Justice issued a preliminary injunction and ordered the children back to school in Tyler just days after they were barred. He issued a permanent injunction against the district in 1978.
Sitting in his chambers in Austin recently, the 87-year-old judge said the case's facts were unprecedented.
"I think it's the most important case I ever decided," he said.
His ruling prompted more than a dozen similar challenges across the state. In Dallas, lawyers sued over the school district's policy of not admitting illegal immigrant children. In Houston lawyers challenged the district's tuition policy.
In some places, illegal immigrant children stayed out of school for years as the cases played out in court.
Ana Coca, 39, a bilingual education program administrator at the University of North Texas, spent two years out of school in Houston before her mother enrolled her in a private Catholic school. Her older siblings never finished high school.
"I can tell you why they dropped out," she said. "They were never able to close the gap. It was too late for them."
The situation was so dire that in 1980 a group of Dallas faith and business leaders set up a network of schools to educate the illegal immigrant children in churches.
In Fort Worth, children attended clandestine night schools led by schoolteachers who volunteered their time.
Private Catholic schools also took in illegal immigrants.
Marti Brooks volunteered to teach some of the classes in Dallas. She recalls the backlash from co-workers at her second job as a hotel hostess. They asked why she was helping illegal immigrants.
"Why wouldn't I? Why was it OK to hire them for pennies but not educate their children?" she asked. "I loved the kids. They were so eager to learn."
'A subclass of illiterates'
Many of the state's arguments against enrolling illegal immigrants were economic – that the children caused crowding in schools, that they were costly to educate through bilingual education and that they hurt the learning of American children.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, himself the son of Irish immigrants, rejected those arguments when he wrote the majority opinion on June 15, 1982: "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."
Today, Mr. Plyler is happy the school district didn't win. That's a different view from the one he expressed after the high court's ruling, when he called illegal immigrant children a "burden."
"It would have been one of the worst things to happen in education – they'd cost more not being educated," the retired superintendent said. "Right after we let those youngsters in, I was pleased. Then more and more came, and now we have schools with a lot of Hispanics all over the district."
Tyler ISD attorney John Hardy – who argued the case before the Supreme Court – said the biggest change has been a lot of money spent on bilingual education and special programs for children.
While the Plyler decision guarantees their education and the state grants them in-state tuition and financial aid in college, nothing addresses what happens once they graduate. Their status locks them into low-wage work cleaning houses or doing construction.
"It's very frustrating," Dallas superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. "We inspired them to go to college, and the irony is that now they cannot go to work legally."
The Lopez family offers hope.
The parents and their four children benefited from the 1986 amnesty offered to illegal immigrants who could prove, among other things, that they had lived in the country since before Jan. 1, 1982. Nine of the 10 Lopez children graduated from high school.
Jose Lopez wants to see his grandchildren go "mas arriba" – much higher – than his children, whose high school graduation photos are displayed prominently in his living room.
His grandchildren speak of college and becoming pediatricians and music producers. They are involved in National Honor Society, soccer and drama.
"Hopefully the younger generation can benefit twice as much as we did," Alfredo Lopez said.
Sept. 1, 1975 –The Texas Legislature changes the Texas education code to entitle only citizens and legally admitted immigrants to a free education. It prohibits school districts from using state funds to educate illegal immigrant children.
Feb. 7, 1977 –State District Court Judge James R. Meyers in Austin rules that children of illegal immigrants cannot attend Texas schools unless they pay tuition. The Texas Supreme Court later upholds the decision.
July 21, 1977 –Tyler ISD trustees vote to charge illegal immigrant children $1,000 a year in tuition.
Sept. 6, 1977 –A lawsuit challenging the tuition policy is filed on behalf of four families with 16 illegal immigrant children by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund against Tyler superintendent Jim Plyler and school trustees. The families are listed collectively in the lawsuit as Doe to protect their identities.
Sept. 11, 1977 –U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice issues a preliminary injunction in the Tyler case and orders the children to be readmitted to schools free of charge. A year later, he issues a permanent injunction, saying that the school district cannot deny a free education to children based on their status as illegal Mexican immigrants.
Oct. 16, 1978 –In a separate lawsuit involving Port Arthur ISD, U.S. District Judge Joe Fischer rules illegal immigrant children must be readmitted to school. But none of the 56 children show up – because the judge also ordered the district to send their parents' names to immigration officials.
April 9, 1979 –The parents of 19 illegal immigrant children sue the Dallas school district over a policy that requires proof of legal status to enroll.
Jan. 22, 1980 –In Dallas, an interfaith effort known as Proyecto Educacion, or Project Education, opens three temporary schools at churches for more than 100 illegal immigrant children.
July 21, 1980 –U.S. District Judge Woodrow Seals rules the Texas law unconstitutional and orders the illegal immigrants readmitted. His ruling involves a consolidation of cases challenging the state statute in 17 school districts.
Aug. 12, 1980 –Judge Seal's order is stayed by a three-judge federal appeals panel for the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and illegal immigrant children once again are barred from enrolling tuition-free.
Sept. 4, 1980 –U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell orders Texas schools to admit illegal immigrant children immediately, unless districts can demonstrate their resources are too limited to accommodate them without hampering the education of all students.
Sept. 11, 1980 –U.S. Judge Robert Hill orders the Dallas school district to drop its policy against admitting illegal immigrant children.
Oct. 1, 1980 –The Texas Education Agency says 10,387 illegal immigrant children have enrolled in Texas schools – far fewer than the 120,000 the state had projected. Dallas has 1,043, and Houston 3,000.
Oct. 20, 1980 –The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules school districts cannot deny children an education and the Texas law is unconstitutional.
May 11, 1981 –The Texas House tentatively approves a repeal of the 1975 law, but the issue dies after a Senate committee fails to report the measure to the floor.
Dec. 1, 1981 –Plyler vs. Doe is argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
June 15, 1982 –In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court finds the 1975 Texas law authorizing school districts to deny a free education to illegal immigrant children and to withhold funding for their education violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
May 16, 1984 –President Ronald Reagan releases $30 million in aid to help educate illegal immigrants in border school districts in Texas.
Source: Dallas Morning News research