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PLYLER v. DOE, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)

457 U.S. 202


Argued December 1, 1981 Decided June 15, 1982 *


BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 230, BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 231, and POWELL, J., post, p. 236, filed concurring opinions. BURGER, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 242.



A Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not "legally admitted" into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 210-230.

(a) The illegal aliens who are plaintiffs in these cases challenging the statute may claim the benefit of the Equal Protection Clause, which provides that no State shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Whatever his status under the immigration laws, an alien is a "person" in any ordinary sense of that term. This Court's prior cases recognizing that illegal aliens are "persons" protected by the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, which Clauses do not include the phrase "within its jurisdiction," cannot be distinguished on the asserted ground that persons who have entered the country illegally are not "within the jurisdiction" of a State even if they are present within its boundaries and subject to its laws. Nor do the logic and history of the Fourteenth Amendment support such a construction. Instead, use of the phrase "within its jurisdiction" confirms the understanding that the Fourteenth Amendment's protection 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. Pp. 210-216.

(b) The discrimination contained in the Texas statute cannot be considered rational unless it furthers some substantial goal of the State. Although undocumented resident aliens cannot be treated as a "suspect class," and although education is not a "fundamental right," so as to require the State to justify the statutory classification by showing that it serves a compelling governmental interest, nevertheless the Texas statute imposes a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their disabling status. These children can neither affect their parents' conduct nor their own undocumented status. [457 U.S. 202, 203] The deprivation of public education is not like the deprivation of some other governmental benefit. Public education has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage; the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement. In determining the rationality of the Texas statute, its costs to the Nation and to the innocent children may properly be considered. Pp. 216-224.

(c) The undocumented status of these children vel non does not establish a sufficient rational basis for denying them benefits that the State affords other residents. It is true that when faced with an equal protection challenge respecting a State's differential treatment of aliens, the courts must be attentive to congressional policy concerning aliens. But in the area of special constitutional sensitivity presented by these cases, and in the absence of any contrary indication fairly discernible in the legislative record, no national policy is perceived that might justify the State in denying these children an elementary education. Pp. 224-226.

(d) Texas' statutory classification cannot be sustained as furthering its interest in the "preservation of the state's limited resources for the education of its lawful residents." While the State might have an interest in mitigating potentially harsh economic effects from an influx of illegal immigrants, the Texas statute does not offer an effective method of dealing with the problem. Even assuming that the net impact of illegal aliens on the economy is negative, charging tuition to undocumented children constitutes an ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration, at least when compared with the alternative of prohibiting employment of illegal aliens. Nor is there any merit to the suggestion that undocumented children are appropriately singled out for exclusion because of the special burdens they impose on the State's ability to provide high-quality public education. The record does not show that exclusion of undocumented children is likely to improve the overall quality of education in the State. Neither is there any merit to the claim that undocumented children are appropriately singled out because their unlawful presence within the United States renders them less likely than other children to remain within the State's boundaries and to put their education to productive social or political use within the State. Pp. 227-230.

No. 80-1538, 628 F.2d 448, and No. 80-1934, affirmed.


BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., post, p. 230, BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 231, and POWELL, J., post, p. 236, filed concurring opinions. BURGER, C. J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 242.

[ Footnote * ] Together with No. 80-1934, Texas et al. v. Certain Named and Unnamed Undocumented Alien Children et al., also on appeal from the same court. [457 U.S. 202, 204]

John C. Hardy argued the cause for appellants in No. 80-1538. Richard Arnett, Assistant Attorney General of Texas, argued the cause for appellants in No. 80-1934. With them on the briefs were Mark White, Attorney General, John W. Fainter, Jr., First Assistant Attorney General, and Richard E. Gray III, Executive Assistant Attorney General.

Peter D. Roos argued the cause for appellees in No. 80-1538. With him on the brief were Larry Daves and Vilma S. Martinez. Peter A. Schey argued the cause for appellees in No. 80-1934. With him on the briefs were Al Campos, Larry Mealer, and Jane Swanson.

Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General Reynolds, and Edwin S. Kneedler filed a brief for the United States in No. 80-1934 and for the United States as amicus curiae in No. 80-1538.Fn

Fn [457 U.S. 202, 204] Briefs of amici curiae urging reversal in both bases were filed by Travis Hiester, Orrin W. Johnson, Neal King, and Tony Martinez for the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District et al.; and by John S. Aldridge for the Texas Association of School Boards. Ronald A. Zumbrun and John H. Findley filed a brief for the Pacific Legal Foundation as amicus curiae urging reversal in No. 80-1538.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance in both cases were filed by James J. Orlow for the American Immigration Lawyers Association; by Samuel Rabinove for the American Jewish Committee; by Bill Lann Lee for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund; by the Edgewood Independent School District; by Peter B. Sandmann for the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco; by Michael K. Suarez for the Mexican American Bar Association of Houston; by Robert J. Kenney, Jr., for the National Education Association et al.; by Fred Fuchs for Texas Impact; and by Daniel Marcus and John F. Cooney for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law et al. Thomas M. Griffin filed a brief for the California State Board of Education as amicus curiae urging affirmance in No. 80-1538.

Briefs of amici curiae in both cases were filed by Joseph C. Zengerle for the Federation for American Immigration Reform; by David Crump for the Legal Foundation of America; and by Roger J. Marzulla and Maxwell A. Miller for the Mountain States Legal Foundation.

Briefs of amici curiae in No. 80-1934 were filed by Joyce D. Miller for the American Friends Service Committee et al.; and by Gwendolyn H. [457 U.S. 202, 205] Gregory, Thomas A. Shannon, and August W. Steinhilber for the National School Boards Association. [457 U.S. 202, 205]