Today marks the 40th anniversary of Plyler v Doe, one of our nation’s most consequential constitutional decisions and a singular achievement in the history of MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund).
In 1977, MALDEF filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Texas law that sought to exclude undocumented children from the public schoolhouse by charging tuition. In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law was unconstitutional and in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Because of the decision reached in Plyler, every child is guaranteed access to a free public K-12 school without fear that their immigration status can cut short their education.
Statement on the impact of this landmark ruling to MALDEF President and General Counsel Thomas A. Saenz:
Plyler v. Doe changed this nation. By ensuring equitable access to public school, the decision ensured that millions of children could dream of a better future for themselves and their families. This has translated into immeasurable benefit to American society as teachers, doctors, artists, writers, innovators, judges, elected officials, and leaders in all areas have arisen from among those able to access school because of Plyler.
Of course, the dream and the benefit remain incomplete until our Congress acts to protect all ‘Plyler kids’ as adults through immigration reform legislation to ensure that our nation fully embraces and welcomes these benefactors as the full-fledged citizens they have earned the right to be.
At 40, Plyler itself is secure and well-settled constitutional law, incorporated in 1996 into federal statute. Although unscrupulous politicians will continue to threaten the Plyler principle, such threats are empty indications of electoral desperation and vacuous thinking that regresses to thinly-veiled racism in the face of perceived political danger.
At MALDEF, we commemorate the efforts of all of those who secured and protected Plyler over the years. When Plyler v. Doe was first filed, the constitutional principle achieved in 1982 was far from assured. In the end, the plaintiffs had to first establish their own constitutional personhood before achieving the great victory of equity in public school access. This ominously foreshadowed how far back some current demagogues would seek to push us as a democratic society. We will never go back. Long live Plyler v. Doe.
Founded in 1968, MALDEF is the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization. Often described as the “law firm of the Latino community,” MALDEF promotes social change through advocacy, communications, community education, and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights, and political access. For more information on MALDEF, please visit: www.maldef.org.