By Michael A. Olivas
In his recent Americas Quarterly article, “The Dream Deferred,” fellow NYU Press author Marcelo Suárez-Orozco usefully sketches the demographic developments in the United States that have combined to make Latino children such a substantial public school population. On June 15, the country will celebrate the 30th birthday of the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe. This landmark ruling from 1982 has made it possible for undocumented children to enroll in the nation’s public schools, and it has been widely acknowledged as a success story.
When President Reagan and Congress enacted comprehensive immigration reform in 1986, it was possible for many of these children to become citizens. Even early opponents such as James Plyler, the Tyler, Texas superintendent, later indicated that he was happy the case turned out as it did, inasmuch as these children were permitted to stay and get an education.
The case continues to require vigilance because some states still attempt to enact their own laws on the schooling of undocumented children, as Alabama did when it passed a statute requiring registration of its schoolchildren. The legislators just wanted to put the fear of God (and “La Migra” – the immigration authorities) into the hearts of the parents, who were lured to Alabama to do the backbreaking work that others don’t do. The courts enjoined the provisions, although the desired damage had been done: frightened parents removed their children from the schools. In another recent incident, a Texas schoolteacher admonished a child that he should “go back to Mexico.” These kinds of events are newsworthy because they are relatively rare. But the fact is many of the targeted children excel in their academic and personal endeavors and win competitions and awards.
The ongoing debates in the Republican primaries over the DREAM Act — which would provide conditional citizenship to certain undocumented college students — have revealed a great divide on what to do about these children when they reach college age. Recall how Gov. Perry’s immigrant tuition policies, allowing undocumented Texas college students to pay in-state tuition, ran afoul of his opponents in the GOP primary. Herman Cain, in contrast, foolishly advocated for an electrified fence. And Senator Marco Rubio has made several proposals, some of which are semi-DREAM Act, or the DREAM Act in a slumber, which would not give a pathway to eventual permanent residency.
State laws do not wisely address the issues — they violate federal law and overreact. They have also shown the interconnectedness and globalization of migrant and farm labor in a way no other means could have. Only federal comprehensive immigration reform can work — we cannot have 50 state immigration policies, any more than we can have 50 foreign policies or forms of currency. The US Supreme Court recently heard the challenge to the Arizona nativist statute, so restrictionist challenges to federal power are still in play.
In the end, Plyler is an example of our better angels. Re-reading the case today draws attention to the important issues of incorporation of outsiders into our communities, the strains in the U.S. polity, and the unrelenting meanness of the restrictionists who are still fighting this battle more than 30 years later. Most educators are drawn to the story’s narrative arc: innocent children brought to a new country where their families live in the shadows. In our society, then as now, we do not punish our children for the transgressions of their parents. The decision was the best our country has to offer: compassion, a fierce belief in reducing inequality, and political and personal courage. We now need a robust DREAM Act to allow us to keep the benefits of these precious children in our community.
University of Houston law professor Michael A. Olivas is author of No Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Schoolchildren, recently released by New York University Press.