History Lesson 10: Plyler v. Doe: Can States Deny Public Benefits to Illegal Immigrants?


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This lesson focuses on the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe on whether a state may deny public education to the children of illegal immigrants. It gives the background on the case and the arguments for both sides. In the activity, students take part in mock hearing before the Supreme Court on this case.


Students will be able to:

Standards Addressed:

National Civics Standard 11: Understands the role of diversity in American life and the importance of shared values, political beliefs, and civic beliefs in an increasingly diverse American society. (6) Knows how shared ideas and values of American political culture are reflected in various sources and documents (e.g., . . . landmark decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States)

California History-Social Science Standard 11.10: Students analyze the development of federal civil rights and voting rights. (2) Examine and analyze the key . . . court cases in the evolution of civil rights.

California History-Social Science Standard 12.5: Students summarize landmark U.S. Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution and its amendments. (1) Understand the changing interpretations of the Bill of Rights over time, including interpretations of the basic freedoms . . . articulated in the . . . equal-protection-of-the-law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Notes: After the activity, explain to students the outcome of the case. By a 5 to 4 vote, the Supreme Court decided:

  1. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment applies "to anyone, citizens or stranger" residing within a state's boundaries. The children in this case were within the jurisdiction of the state and were thus protected by the 14th Amendment.
  2. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment requires Texas and the Tyler Independent School District to provide free public schooling to the children of undocumented immigrants on an equal basis with the other children in the state and school district.

Writing for the majority, Justice William Brennan concluded: "We cannot ignore the significant social costs borne by the nation when select groups are denied the means to absorb the values and skills upon which our social order rests."

Writing for the four dissenters, Chief Justice Warren Burger states: "By definition, illegal aliens have no rights whatever to be here, and the state may reasonably and constitutionally, elect to provide them with government services at the expense of those who are lawfully in the state."

Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)
Plyler v. Doe: Can States Deny Public Benefits to Illegal Immigrants?

The Supreme Court

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of
a group of undocumented workers who had been denied
free public schooling by the state of Texas. (Shutterstock.com)

During the 1970s, large numbers of people entered the United States illegally. Many came from Mexico to work for low wages in border states like Texas. Attorney General William French Smith testified before Congress in 1981 that most of the 1 to 6 million illegal immigrants were living more or less permanently in this country. This situation led to questions about the legal status and rights of these people, who are often referred to as "undocumented workers" or "illegal aliens," because they have not obtained papers necessary for being in the country.

The 14th Amendment prohibits any state from denying "to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The equal protection clause requires that all American citizens be treated equally by the law. But does the equal protection clause also demand equal treatment for those who are not citizens or who have entered the United States illegally?

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of a group of children of undocumented workers who had been denied free public schooling by the state of Texas. After reading the background and arguments of this case, your class will have the opportunity to role play the Supreme Court hearing.

The Background of Plyler v. Doe

In May 1975, the Texas state legislature passed a law authorizing school districts to deny enrollment to children who had not been "legally admitted" into the United States. Under this law, Texas school districts could either bar from the schools the children of people who entered illegally or charge them tuition. The Tyler Independent School District in Smith County chose the second option.

Several federal court lawsuits were filed against the Texas law. The first was a class-action suit filed in 1977 by attorneys on behalf of "certain school-age children of Mexican origins residing in Smith County, Texas, who could not establish that they had been legally admitted into the United States." A federal district court ruled in 1977 and again in 1980 that the state law violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. An injunction (court order) barred the state and the Tyler School Board from denying free public schooling to the undocumented immigrant children. A federal appeals court in 1981 agreed with the lower court ruling. The Tyler school board and school superintendent, James Plyler, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Constitutional Questions

In preparing their briefs for the Supreme Court hearings, the attorneys for both sides had to address two basic constitutional questions:

The Arguments of the Appellants

Attorneys representing the Tyler Independent School District, the appellants in this case, answered "no" to both of the constitutional questions. To support their position, the appellants offered the following arguments:

The Arguments of the Respondents

The attorneys representing the undocumented immigrant children, the respondents in this case, answered "yes" to both of the constitutional questions. To support their position, the respondents offered the following arguments:

For Discussion and Writing

  1. What was the case of Plyler v. Doe about?
  2. In your opinion, whom does the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment protect? Why?
  3. Do you think any of the following public benefits should be available to undocumented immigrants or their children? Why?
    Public College Education
    Public Housing
    Food Stamps
    Public Schooling
    Unemployment Benefits


Supreme Court Hearing

  1. 1. Divide the class into three groups to take on the roles of attorneys for the appellants, attorneys for the respondents, and justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  2. 2. The attorney group should again read the constitutional questions in the case and the arguments for their side. Each attorney should be responsible for presenting to the Supreme Court at least one of the 10 arguments. Attorneys should be prepared to explain and answer questions on their arguments, not merely read them word-for-word from the article.
  3. 3. One of two attorneys from each side of the case should additionally prepare to make summary statements. These statements will come at the end of the Supreme Court hearing and should directly answer the two constitutional questions.
  4. 4. The students role playing justices of the Supreme Court should again read the entire article. They should prepare questions to ask the attorneys about their arguments. The justices should also choose a "chief justice" who will preside at the hearing and recognize attorneys who wish to speak.

    Rules of Procedure

    These rules modify actual Supreme Court procedure for the purpose of conducting this class simulation:
    a. The chief justice will read the name of the case and the constitutional question that both sides must address.
    b. The chief justice will them ask the appellants to present their arguments. Each attorney for the appellants will have a turn to present his or her argument. The justices (but not the attorneys on the other side) may interrupt and ask questions at any time.
    c. The chief justice will next recognize individual attorneys for the respondents who wish to make rebuttals or ask questions.
    d. The attorneys for the respondent will them have their turn to present arguments. When they are finished, the attorneys for the appellants will have the opportunity to make rebuttals or ask questions.
    e. At the end of the hearing, the chief justice will recognize attorneys for the purpose of presenting summary statements. The attorney(s) for the respondents will go first.
    f. When the hearing has been concluded, the Supreme Court justices will meet privately to discuss their answer to the two constitutional questions. A separate vote should be taken on each question with a simple majority deciding each issue.
    g. Finally, the chief justice will announce the vote on the two constitutional questions and each justice will have reasons for his or her votes.