Case: Doe v. Plyler

6:77-cv-00261 | U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas

Filed Date: Sept. 6, 1977

Closed Date: June 15, 1982

Clearinghouse coding complete

Case Summary

This is a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1982; in an opinion by Justice Brennan, the Court held that denying undocumented children of undocumented immigrants the right to attend public school constitutes discrimination based on alienage, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)The case began on September 6, 1977, when a group of undocumented Mexican immigrant children filed a class action complaint and motion for a preli…

This is a case that reached the Supreme Court in 1982; in an opinion by Justice Brennan, the Court held that denying undocumented children of undocumented immigrants the right to attend public school constitutes discrimination based on alienage, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982)

The case began on September 6, 1977, when a group of undocumented Mexican immigrant children filed a class action complaint and motion for a preliminary injunction in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. They sought declaratory and injunctive relief after their exclusion from Tyler Independent School District (TISD) public schools. Specifically, they challenged TISD's decision as authorized by a Texas statute (§ 21.031) to charge any undocumented children tuition of $1,000 per school year to be able to attend TISD schools. The state statute was passed in 1975 in response to concerns about overcrowding in Texas schools due to increased migration from Mexico of both legally present and undocumented immigrants. TISD developed its subsequent tuition policy out of concern that growing numbers of immigrant students in its schools would eventually result in a drain on its funds. Plaintiffs argued that this policy was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and that the Texas statute was preempted by the federal Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). Plaintiffs were represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) in front of (then) District Judge William Wayne Justice.

District court

The district court held a hearing on September 9, 1977, at which the state's motion to intervene was granted. Judge Justice subsequently certified a class "consisting of all undocumented school-age children of Mexican origin residing within the School District" and granted plaintiffs a preliminary injunction on September 12, allowing the children in question to begin the school year. A trial on the merits was held early in 1978, and the United States also filed a post-trial brief in support of plaintiffs' equal protection argument. On September 14, 1978, Judge Justice issued an opinion finding for plaintiffs on both arguments and permanently enjoining the defendants from implementing the Texas statute. 458 F.Supp. 569.

On the equal protection claim, the court did not conclusively answer the question of whether the children in question were a suspect class or whether rational basis review was more appropriate, instead holding that TISD and Texas had not even advanced a rational basis for § 21.031. The state argued that § 21.031 was justified in order to save money for education costs for the state of Texas, or alternatively that it was simply applying a federal criterion for differential treatment. As to the first, Judge Justice wrote that simply saving money is not a rational justification for a law unless there is some other connection between the purpose of the law and the group affected. Here, there was no reason to think that excluding undocumented students in particular had any rational relationship to cost savings, as the overcrowding in schools was due to increased migration generally. The record did not indicate any reasons why undocumented students presented a greater cost to TISD than legally present immigrant students. As to the second, federal immigration classifications come from the federal government's authority to regulate immigration, whereas states have no comparable power. States therefore cannot simply borrow federal classifications to distinguish between people within their own borders.

The statute was also distinguished from state laws that regulate lawful and undocumented immigrants differently in the workplace: those laws serve a purpose that mirrors a federal purpose in protecting the labor market, and also make a connection between particular characteristics about undocumented workers and the subsequent effects of those characteristics on the labor market. By contrast, § 21.031 did not serve to decrease migration from Mexico overall and therefore did not serve any purpose articulated in federal immigration law, and the record did not make clear any characteristics about undocumented children that would make it reasonable for the state to refuse to educate them.

Judge Justice also found that § 21.031 was preempted by both the INA and various federal laws that emphasized the importance of public education.

Fifth Circuit appeal

Defendants appealed the case, where it was heard in front of Judges Dyer, Politz, and Johnson of the Fifth Circuit. On October 20, 1980, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Frank Johnson, the Court of Appeals affirmed that § 21.031 as applied to undocumented children was an equal protection violation but reversed the preemption finding. 628 F.2d 448. The court reemphasized that the text and logic of the Equal Protection Clause indicate that undocumented persons were meant to be included within its protections simply by virtue of being persons within the jurisdiction of the state. The court indicated that § 21.031 might be deserving of strict scrutiny, but eventually declined to decide the question, agreeing with the district court finding that the statute failed even rational basis review. The court cited a number of ways in which § 21.031 was either over- or under-inclusive in its reach, depending on the rationale advanced by the state. On the preemption claim, Congress was not found to have made definitive enough statements regarding education for undocumented children to warrant a finding of preemption.

Consolidation of related cases

At the same time as this case was ongoing, other lawsuits challenging § 21.031 were filed in the Southern, Western, and Northern Districts of Texas. These lawsuits, and specifically their claims against the state, were consolidated by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation on November 16, 1979 under the heading In re Alien Children Education Litigation and assigned to Judge Woodrow B. Seals in the Southern District of Texas. Claims against individual schools or districts were severed and held in abeyance until the claims against the state were resolved. On January 11, 1980, the United States filed a motion to intervene in In re Alien Children Education Litigation, again taking the position that the Texas statute was unconstitutional, which the court granted. The parties agreed to have the court rule on the question of § 21.031's constitutionality, and a hearing on the merits was held from February 19 through March 27, 1980.

On July 21, 1980 (several months before the Plyler appeal was decided), Judge Seals entered an opinion and order holding that § 21.031 violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and enjoining the state from implementing it. 501 F.Supp. 544. He also certified a (b)(2) class of "all children who are over five and not over twenty-one years of age at the beginning of the scholastic year and have been or will be denied admission to the public schools in the State of Texas on a tuition-free basis because of the alienage provisions of § 21.031." Judge Seals held that the statute should be evaluated under strict scrutiny: the statute resulted in an absolute deprivation of access to education for undocumented children, and there is a direct relationship between explicitly guaranteed free speech and voting rights and the ability to access education. He distinguished the holding in Rodriguez by stating that recognizing a right of access to education when it is being provided to others does not also imply a right to equal enjoyment of education (which the Supreme Court found does not exist when it decided Rodriguez).

While appeal of this consolidated litigation was pending, the Fifth Circuit affirmed Doe v. Plyler. The Court of Appeals subsequently summarily affirmed the consolidated case opinion on February 23, 1921.

The Supreme Court noted jurisdiction in the appeal of Doe v. Plyler, 451 U.S. 968, and then, when the consolidated litigation was also appealed to the Supreme Court (under the name Texas v. Certain Named and Unnamed Undocumented Alien Children), the Court again noted jurisdiction and merged the cases for briefing and oral argument. 452 U.S. 937.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court upheld both decisions of the Court of Appeals in full, in a 5-4 decision issued on June 15, 1982 and written by Justice Brennan. 457 U.S. 202. In particular, the court placed emphasis on idea that while differential treatment might be justifiably applied to individuals who enter the country illegally, those arguments do not apply with the same force to for minor children who come here through no action of their own. The court did not hold that undocumented immigrants are a suspect class or that education is a fundamental right, but nevertheless held that given the nature of the permanent disability and stigma lack of an education can cause, § 21.031 could not pass rational basis review unless it furthered some "substantial goal" of the State. In the context of education for minor children, undocumented status was not found to be enough of a rational basis on its own to justify the law. Other arguments regarding state funds or economic impacts due to an increase in migration were also rejected.


Plyler suggests that states cannot institute policies which would discourage or prevent a child from enrolling in school based on immigration status, though states continue to test the boundaries of this holding. For example, a 2011 Alabama law requiring school districts to ask students about their immigration status was struck down after Alabama was sued by the Department of Justice. A "Dear Colleague" letter from the Department of Education and the Department of Justice in May 2011 reminded school administrators that they may not deny enrollment to students who are unwilling or unable to provide a Social Security number, or who provide a foreign birth certificate at the time of enrollment.

Summary Authors

Hetali Lodaya (7/6/2020)

Related Cases

In re Alien Children Education Litigation, Southern District of Texas (1978)



Blackmun, Harry Andrew (District of Columbia)

Brennan, William Joseph Jr. (District of Columbia)

Burger, Warren Earl (District of Columbia)

Attorney for Plaintiff

Campos, Al (Texas)

Attorney for Defendant

Arnett, Richard L (Texas)


show all people

Documents in the Clearinghouse



Post-Trial Brief of the United States

J. and R. Doe v. Plyer

Feb. 7, 1978

Feb. 7, 1978

Pleading / Motion / Brief


Memorandum Opinion

Sept. 14, 1978

Sept. 14, 1978


458 F.Supp. 458


Brief for the United States as Amicus Curiae

Does, et al. v. Plyler

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Oct. 31, 1979

Oct. 31, 1979

Pleading / Motion / Brief



In re Alien Children Litigation

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas

July 21, 1980

July 21, 1980


501 F.Supp. 501



U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Oct. 20, 1980

Oct. 20, 1980


628 F.2d 628



Plyler v. Doe

Supreme Court of the United States

June 15, 1982

June 15, 1982


457 U.S. 457



Last updated April 2, 2024, 3:11 a.m.

Docket sheet not available via the Clearinghouse.

Case Details

State / Territory: Texas

Case Type(s):


Special Collection(s):

Civil Rights Division Archival Collection

Key Dates

Filing Date: Sept. 6, 1977

Closing Date: June 15, 1982

Case Ongoing: No


Plaintiff Description:

Plaintiffs were undocumented minor children seeking to attend Tyler Independent School District schools.

Plaintiff Type(s):

Private Plaintiff

Attorney Organizations:


Public Interest Lawyer: Yes

Filed Pro Se: No

Class Action Sought: Yes

Class Action Outcome: Granted


School District (Tyler, Smith), School District

Texas, State

Defendant Type(s):

Elementary/Secondary School

Case Details

Causes of Action:

Ex parte Young (federal or state officials)

Constitutional Clause(s):

Equal Protection

Special Case Type(s):

Multi-District Litigation (MDL)

Available Documents:

Injunctive (or Injunctive-like) Relief

Non-settlement Outcome

Any published opinion

U.S. Supreme Court merits opinion


Prevailing Party: Plaintiff

Nature of Relief:

Injunction / Injunctive-like Settlement

Declaratory Judgment

Source of Relief:


Content of Injunction:

Preliminary relief granted

Discrimination Prohibition




Language access/needs

Discrimination Basis:

Immigration status