Plyler v. Doe: Undocumented Students and Post-Secondary Education

Summary: Plyler v. Doe lay the groundwork for states to recognize the value of awarding education to every group, regardless of citizenship status. Yet the evolution of education means that over thirty years later, its shortcomings are impossible to ignore.

Perhaps even from its conception, American society has recognized the value of education. Over a decade ago, Chief Justice Warren regarded education as “perhaps the most important function of state and local governments” – a “right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” In a country whose history is fraught with battles for liberty, various marginalized groups – from indigenous peoples to Latinx communities – have struggled to claim this right. And for many, specifically undocumented immigrants, the struggle continues. As immigration and naturalization policies increasingly come to conflict with education, questions of who deserves what and why are brought to the forefront.

Although the struggle for educational rights is far from over, undocumented immigrants have won various legislative battles. In 1973, the Supreme Court in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez determined that education was not a federally-protected constitutional right. Nine years later, however, in Plyler v. Doe, it both characterized and defined education as a “significant state benefit.” Plyler would prove to be one of the court’s most instrumental decisions regarding what educational benefits would be awarded to undocumented immigrants. By defining education as a “significant state benefit,” Plyler overturned a Texas statute that essentially allowed public schools to deny enrollment to undocumented children. Such a policy, the nation’s high court ruled, contrary to the state’s claims, failed to further a legitimate state interest.

The importance of Plyler goes beyond simply overturning a statue. In addition, Plyler demonstrated that the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment also applied to undocumented immigrants – prior to Plyler, the court had only ruled on fourth, fifth, and sixth amendment cases. It cemented the importance of education both individually and societally, holding that such importance warranted legal protection for all persons in the United States, not just citizens. As Justice Brennan wrote in the majority opinion, denying persons education would in effect create “a permanent caste of undocumented resident aliens, encouraged by some to remain here as a source of cheap labor but nevertheless denied the benefits that our society makes available to citizens and lawful residents.” Most importantly, Plyler squarely reaffirmed that enforcing immigration and naturalization laws was a federal duty, not a state one: it banned K-12 educators from making inquiries that “expose immigration status, requiring social security numbers, or engaging in other behaviors designed to expose illegality.

As significant as Plyler may be, it leaves questions of post-secondary education – which can be controversial and legally complex – largely unresolved. Justice Brennan’s argument for education as a “significant state benefit” applied exclusively to K-12 education; in fact, Section 21.031 of Plyler specifies persons “over the age of 5 and under the age of 21 on the first day of September of any scholastic year.” Compulsory attendance, however, only applies to persons up to age 17, meaning that Plyler has left basic education for adults ages 17-21 largely undefined.

The absence of any post-secondary consideration in Plyler means that such issues must be considered separately. Legislature concerning post-secondary education, however, is markedly more restrictive than Plyler, raising concerns for undocumented students seeking educational opportunities. At their best, post-secondary school policies are unclear and misleading. Admissions policies for most state colleges and universities, for example, vary from state to state, and lack uniform guidelines on requirements on proof of legal residency, citizenship, or immigration status. Some schools restrict admission to legal residents altogether, but again, these policies vary from state to state. A survey conducted by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers “found that 53.6 percent of responding schools (613 of 2,000 the association’s member institutions) knowingly admit undocumented immigrant students, while many schools do not verify students’ citizenship or immigration status, regardless of institutional or state policies related to admission.” Unclear policies only raise additional barriers for undocumented immigrants, who may already face substantial discrimination or financial struggles both in their everyday lives and in their pursuit of college educations.

Even without unclear admissions policies, the existing legislature regarding post-secondary education poses significant obstacles to undocumented immigrants. While admissions policies are typically simply unclear or confusing, policies concerning financial aid are outright exclusive – which is especially problematic considering that most undocumented students already come from financially-burdened households and are unable to gain lawful employment. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, for example, holds that “unqualified ‘aliens’” are not eligible for any federal public benefit, including post-secondary education. Furthermore, most federal and state-based financial aid require proof of citizenship or permanent legal residence, automatically excluding undocumented students from financial opportunities such as federal student loans, Pell Grants, and work-study allocations.

Not only are undocumented students unable to acquire financial assistance; they are, in many cases, also forced to pay out-of-state tuition, a fact that is again made more troubling by the financial status of many undocumented students. Only two states offer state-funded financial aid for undocumented students, and only ten extend in-state tuition benefits to undocumented students at all. Five states ban undocumented students from receiving in-state benefits altogether. For most undocumented students, the reality is that a post-secondary education from a public institution is unobtainable – if not on administrative grounds, then on financial ones.

If the existing legislature is any indication, significant barriers must still be overcome for undocumented students seeking college educations. For a more accessible education to be realized, the importance of accessible post-secondary education must be recognized first. An argument similar to that offered in Plyler, where education is essential for democratic and societal well-being, could be extended beyond K-12 schooling. For example, for states, an educated populace could result in a larger and potentially more productive workforce. And as labor markets and the necessary skills to enter the workforce evolve, post-secondary educations could become instrumental not only to providing opportunities for undocumented students fleeing poor conditions, but to strengthening state economies.

Nearly forty years ago, Justice Brennan was concerned with restrictions on access to education creating an “underclass.” Today, that concern is amplified more than over. Unable to find legal employment and limited to menial and often exploitative labor, undocumented students perhaps have no choice but to pursue further education. The restrictive and unclear policies utilized in many states designed to bar undocumented students from colleges and universities do not only foreshadow the creation of an underclass: they guarantee it.

It is unlikely that the Supreme Court will reverse its decision to not recognize education as a constitutional right. Similarly, whether or not it will extend the idea that “education is fundamental to maintaining the fabric of our society” to post-secondary education remains to be seen. Until then, one fact remains clear: although post-secondary education may not be a right, the ability to improve one’s life is.

Author Bio: Isadora Toledo is a freshman from Buffalo, New York, planning to pursue a major in public policy and a minor in education.

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