By Katherine Leal Unmuth
Latino Ed Beat
President Obama’s announcement today that the United States will stop deporting certain young illegal immigrants brought into the country as children comes on a significant date in history absent from many textbooks and unknown to many Americans.
Perhaps not even the young people impacted by the administration’s policy change know about it. And the president did not mention it in his speech. The historic Plyler v. Doe Supreme Court decision affirmed undocumented immigrant children’s right to a free public education and marks its 30th anniversary today.
Obama’s decree stops short of the DREAM Act, and is just a temporary measure. To qualify, young people must be 30 or younger, must have been in the U.S. at least five years and must have arrived before they were 16. They must be currently in school, have graduated from high school or earned a GED, or served in the military. They also cannot have a criminal record.
It defers deportation for two years and allows them to get work visas, but does not provide a path to citizenship. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that up to 1.4 million people could benefit from the policy.
“This is the right thing to do,” the president said.
But how did the United States come to be in this position? There are so many thousands of young people affected because of the still-controversial Plyler decision.
The narrowly decided 5-4 decision made on June 15, 1982, arose from a civil rights lawsuit filed in Tyler, Texas. It doesn’t carry the broad name recognition of Brown v. Board of Education. And yet, it is a decision that affects more children today than at the time it was decided.
I was working for The Dallas Morning News when I traveled to Tyler on the case’s 25th anniversary to meet with some of those who were involved in the case to record a series of video interviews and eventually to write an article.
In 1975, Texas began allowing districts to charge tuition to undocumented immigrant children or to bar them from school. In 1977, a number of poor Mexican families attempted to enroll their children in Tyler schools. Because they were undocumented immigrants, they were told they would need to pay $1,000 per child, which they could not afford to pay.
Catholic lay worker Michael McAndrew noticed they were out of school and brought the case to the attention of a local attorney and then the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Four families filed suit against the school district and Jim Plyler, the schools superintendent. Judge Justice ruled in favor of the families, and the case went on to the Supreme Court.
In 2007, I visited the humble home of Jose and Lidia Lopez, one of the couples who challenged the Tyler schools in court. Their children later went on to graduate high school and remain in Tyler, where they are raising their own children.
“School is very important for all children, and they should not be discriminated against because they are Mexican or white or black,” Mr. Lopez said. “They should be equal.”
When I visited Jim Plyler, he said he had changed his mind and supported the decision.
Texas U.S. District Court Judge William Wayne Justice – who decided the case in favor of the children before it was sent to the higher court–told me that it was the most important decision of his lengthy career. Judge Justice has since passed away, but felt confident of his decision until his death at 89.
“I don’t know how many [children] got an education as a result of it, I can speculate it might have been more than a million,” Judge Justice told me. “Without that education they would have been a burden on the rest of us….When Texas educates these children, whether Mexican-American children or children of illegal immigrants we’re giving ourselves a break financially.”
In the Supreme Court’s majority opinion Justice William Brennan, a son of Irish immigrants, wrote: “It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare and crime.”