Plyler v. Doe,
457 U.S. 202 (1982)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)

Plyler v. Doe

No. 80-1538

Argued December 1, 1981

Decided June 15, 1982*

457 U.S. 202


Held: 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. 457 U. S. 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. 457 U. S. 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. The deprivation

Page 457 U. S. 203

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 wellbeing 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. 457 U. S. 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. 457 U. S. 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. 457 U. S. 227-230.

No. 80-1638, 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. 457 U. S. 230, BLACKMUN, J., post, p. 457 U. S. 231, and POWELL, J., post, p. 457 U. S. 236, filed concurring opinions. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, REHNQUIST, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined,post, p. 457 U. S. 242.

Page 457 U. S. 205

Primary Holding

A state cannot prevent children of undocumented immigrants from attending public school unless a substantial state interest is involved.


A class action challenged the constitutionality of Texas Education Code Section 21.031, which prohibited the use of state funds for the education of children who had not been legally admitted to the U.S. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit argued that this law violated the Equal Protection Clause with regard to the children of undocumented aliens, and the lower courts agreed. Texas asserted three justifications for the law on appeal. It argued that the law was intended to prevent an influx of illegal immigrants into Texas, to alleviate the burdens on the educational system caused by educating undocumented aliens, and to alleviate the burdens created by educating children who are unlikely to remain in the state and contribute to it.



  • William Joseph Brennan, Jr. (Author)
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • Harry Andrew Blackmun
  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.
  • John Paul Stevens

Rational basis review is appropriate because the law does not involve either a certain protected group or a fundamental right, since the right to an education has not been defined as fundamental. This means that the law must be rationally related to a substantial state interest. None of these three justifications rises to the necessary level, and the law does not further those interests. Children who do not receive a public education because of a trait that they cannot control (the immigration status of their parents) will suffer from illiteracy and its associated stigmas for the rest of their lives. This will result in a net burden on society because they cannot contribute to civic institutions, which would be a greater loss to the state than the cost of educating them now.


  • Warren Earl Burger (Author)
  • Byron Raymond White
  • William Hubbs Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

Rational basis review typically is highly deferential. The law is not irrational, and the courts should not deem it irrational simply because they would have enacted a different measure to deal with the situation.


  • Thurgood Marshall (Author)


  • Harry Andrew Blackmun (Author)


  • Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr. (Author)

Case Commentary

Although access to education is not a fundamental right, the Court seemed to find that it was a right approaching fundamental, judging by the heightened standard of review that was implicitly applied. It can be roughly equated to the intermediate scrutiny used for gender discrimination, although it falls short of the strict scrutiny used for race discrimination.

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