Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202; 102 S. Ct. 2382; 72 L. Ed. 2d 786 (1982)

Facts—In May 1975, the Texas legislature revised its educational laws to withhold from school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States and authorized local school districts to deny enrollment to such children. A class action was filed in the District Court on behalf of certain school-age children of Mexican origin. The District Court enjoined the school corporations from excluding the undocumented children, holding that the Texas law violated the equal protection clause. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Question—May Texas deny to undocumented school-age children the free public education that it provides to children who are citizens of the United States or legally admitted aliens?


ReasonsJ. Brennan (5–4). “Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is surely a ‘person’ in any ordinary sense of that term. Aliens, whose presence in this country is unlawful, have long been recognized as ‘persons’ guaranteed due process of law by the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. We have clearly held that the Fifth Amendment protects aliens whose presence in this country is unlawful from invidious discrimination by the federal government.      Neither our cases nor the logic of the Fourteenth Amendment supports the construction of the phrase ‘within its jurisdiction’ to mean that illegal aliens are not within a state’s jurisdiction.  The Equal Protection Clause was intended to work nothing less than the abolition of all caste and invidious class based legislation.      Use of the phrase ‘within its jurisdiction’ thus does not detract from, but rather confirms, the understanding that the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment extends to anyone, citizen or stranger, who is subject to the laws of a state, and reaches into every corner of a state’s territory. That a person’s initial entry into a state, or into the United States, was unlawful, and that he may for that reason be expelled, cannot negate the simple fact of his presence within the state’s territorial perimeter. Given such presence, he is subject to the full range of obligations imposed by the state’s civil and criminal laws. And until he leaves the jurisdiction—either voluntarily, or involuntarily in accordance with the Constitution and laws of the United States—he is entitled to the equal protection of the laws that a state may choose to establish.”

C.J. Burger’s dissent begins: “Were it our business to set the nation’s social policy ” and continues: “However, the constitution does not constitute us as ‘platonic guardians’ nor does it vest in this Court the authority to strike down laws because they do not meet our standards of desirable social policy, ‘wisdom,’ or ‘common sense.’”

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