• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1996 • Dr. Albert Cortez

In our many years of working together, I remember how Dr. Jose Cárdenas periodically would tell us the story of the child who received a hammer as a gift and subsequently “discovered” that many things around him needed a few taps with his new found instrument (whether the object to be hammered needed the tapping or not). Recent developments in Washington, D.C., related to the education of children of undocumented workers bring to mind that child as some lawmakers seek to re-visit an issue that states and the courts resolved over a decade ago.

The impetus for re-surfacing the issue of whether or not children of undocumented workers should have access to education in U.S. public schools came from members of Congress from California who had been thwarted in their efforts to deny children access to education through a state referendum, Proposition 187 (which the federal district courts found violates the US Supreme Court decision in Plyler vs. Doe). So, they sought to involve others in their exclusionary quest. Congressman Elton Gallegly from California thus introduced an amendment to HR 2022, a comprehensive immigration reform proposal originally introduced by Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas. The Gallegly amendment was approved by a vote that closely followed partisan lines.

Senate leaders opted to leave the controversial measure out of their version of the immigration reform bill. Currently, a conference committee is convening to reconcile the House and Senate versions. Media reports indicate that President Clinton is expected to sign the final bill, but the White House has expressed concern over some provisions – including the proposal that would deny children access to an education – and is pressing for changes when the conference committee meets (Lacey, 1996).

Illogical Rationale

As IDRA tracked the debates around the immigrant education issue, we noted the rationale used to defend this punitive and discriminatory treatment of immigrant children. Proponents of the measure justified their position by suggesting that the Plyler vs. Doe decision had rested in part on the “lack” of a clear position by the Congress on the issue of immigrant children’s access to education. They contend that the new amendment makes explicit a congressional position that leaves the decision to provide or deny access to education strictly to the states (civil rights issues and due process concerns notwithstanding).

Conveniently, the proposal leaves the decision to deny access to children of undocumented workers to the states. Perhaps the reason is to ensure that the inevitable legal challenges that follow are directed to the state governments (versus federal government). Perhaps it is to ensure that any political fallout associated with such inhumane treatment of children can be blamed on someone other than those who merely set the stage for subsequent state action. Possibly, it could be to set a defense for a cut-off of federal funding for immigrant impact aid, since the states would themselves be responsible for all future enrollments of all immigrant students.

Whatever the rationale, if the exclusionary legislation is adopted, it will re-surface the bitter debates that surrounded the initial debate of the issue in the 1980s. We have learned much about immigrant education in the decade since the Plyler vs. Doe decision, and we should consider those lessons before we attempt to un-do rational public policies.

Lessons Learned

The numbers are never what anti-immigrant proponents claim. Much of the debate around immigrant student enrollment focuses on the estimated numbers and the presumed effects that these enrollments have on local public schools. There is no consensus on actual numbers, but history has demonstrated that proponents of exclusion are not hesitant to use grossly inflated figures.

In the Texas case, the proponents of exclusion estimated that more than 100,000 children of undocumented workers would enroll in Texas public schools. When required to admit them, the total enrollment of such children (as reported to the state agency by local school districts) totaled less than 16,000. This is 16 percent of the number first touted (Cortez, 1981). Not only were the numbers far less than that originally claimed, but the number of schools actually enrolling immigrant students also represented less than a quarter of Texas’ 1060 school systems.

The savings are also a fraction of the amounts often predicted by anti-immigrant groups. Since the actual numbers of immigrant students enrolling in schools turn out be to a fraction of those estimated, states do not experience the inflated cost estimates used to justify the exclusion of children. If all immigrant pupils had been excluded from Texas schools, the net savings available for each student still enrolled in Texas schools would have come to less than $15 per pupil. When this is divided by the 200-plus instructional days, this net savings would come to 7.5 per pupil per day.

Immigrant families are unlikely to alter their plans based on state education policies. While Texas was in the midst of enforcing its exclusionary doctrine in the years before the legal challenge to this practice, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) did not report any major decrease in the number of immigrants coming to the United States.

Contrary to some misguided assumptions, immigrants come to the country seeking employment and opportunity. They do not come so their children can attend US schools. Earlier, while some families expressed concern about the state’s exclusionary practices, there was no great exodus from Texas as a result of the enforcement of the state’s discriminatory treatment of immigrants. The assumption that giving states the option of denying schooling to young children will contribute to reduced migration remains unsubstantiated and misguided.

The costs of exclusion may actually exceed any small benefits derived. Even conservative groups representing local law enforcement recognize the dysfunctional affects of keeping students out of school and thus in unsupervised settings while parents are away at work. Major national groups have expressed their concerns about the proposed new policies, citing the unintended consequences associated with having thousands of unsupervised youth left out of school with nothing to fill their time. While the numbers remain in dispute, any number of school age youth denied access to the system can create disruptions in local communities (witness the concerns expressed by shopping mall owners and downtown merchants about out-of-school youths in many communities throughout the country). The problem that would only be exacerbated by denying youth access to local public schooling.

Such Measures are Unconstitutional

In the 1982 Plyler vs. Doe decision, the US Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to deny children access to public education because of their citizenship status. When the Gallegly amendment was debated, IDRA distributed an informational alert about this and similar measures. The alert stated that the Supreme Court arrived at its decision because such practices:

  • Victimize innocent children – Children of undocumented workers do not choose the conditions under which they enter the United States. They should not be punished for circumstances they do not control. Children have the right to learn and be useful members of society.
  • Hurt more than they claim to help – Denying children access to education will not eliminate illegal immigration. Instead, it ensures the creation of an underclass. Without public education for children, illiteracy rates will increase, and opportunities for workforce and community participation will decrease. Research has proven that for every $1 spent on the education of children, $9 is returned.
  • Turn public school teachers and officials into INS agents – Rather than teaching students, school officials could spend their time asking our 44 million school children about their citizenship status. States will be forced to spend millions of dollars to do the work of the INS.
  • Promote misinformation – Incorrect assumptions and inappropriate figures have been used to blame immigrants and their children for economic problems. In 1992, undocumented immigrants comprised only 1.3 percent of the total US population.
  • Support racism and discrimination – Historically, financially troubled times breed increased racism. Children of undocumented workers should not be the scapegoats.

“Denying children of undocumented workers access to an education is unconstitutional and against the law,” the alert stated.

If Not Based on Rationality and if Unconstitutional, Then Why Proceed?

If the consequences far outweigh the benefits, then why do some push the change in public policy. Several thoughts come to mind. Official frustration over control of immigration has led some to look for easy “solutions,” with immigrant children perceived among the most helpless and thus easy to victimize. The fact that some school officials and staff complain about immigrant enrollments in some communities serve only to exacerbate existing tendencies.

The notion that denial of education will somehow discourage immigration is also a contributing factor, despite the fact that no research exists that substantiates such assumptions.

Exclusionary practices targeting children may also be perceived as politically easier to promote than other options. Some proponents of immigration reform have long argued that the way to discourage undocumented immigration is by creating mechanisms that impact the employment prospects for those who enter the country illegally. One idea supported by many includes employer sanctions aimed at discouraging those who hire undocumented workers. Such efforts however are often met with fierce opposition from private sector interests who depend on immigrant labor. Immigrant children have no lobbyists to ensure their rights.

In addition to what is known or has been learned in the wake of the Plyler vs. Doe decision are our fundamental beliefs about children, justice and simple decency. Should anyone propose that our children be denied some things as basic as an education, we could anticipate a general uproar. Why would it be acceptable then to discriminate against some children?

IDRA believes that education is a fundamental right and that education should be available to all children. To deny even one child such access is bad public policy. To allow states the prerogative to exclude any child access to education is also bad policy, dysfunctional and counter-productive. Add to it the complexities required to enforce exclusion and the unintended consequences for students and communities, and it becomes apparent that current attempts to “fix” immigration by victimizing children will not work. While many educators and children’s advocates have let their voices be heard over the din that is contemporary Washington, all of us who are concerned about children must be prepared to add our own voices to the national conversation. While it may be in vogue to question past public policies, we should never let go unchallenged fundamental beliefs about children’s rights.

In explaining the basis for his decision on education funding equity litigation, Judge Scott McCown observed that while some worried only about providing an adequate education for “their children,” all school age persons in Texas were the responsibility of the state of Texas – thus all children were our children (McCown, 1987). Immigrant students who find themselves residing in Texas (and other states) simply because they are part of an immigrant family, also happen to be our children. We must speak out more loudly in their defense. For, if we – educators who see their faces every day and those who see their hopes, fears, joys, aspirations and heartbreaks – do not speak, then who will?


Cortez, Albert. “The Distribution of Undocumented Pupils in Texas Public Schools: A First Analysis,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1981).

McCown, Judge Scott. Edgewood ISD, et al. vs. Kirby, et al. (1987).

Lacey, Marc. “Senate Approves Broad Assault on Illegal Immigration,” Los Angeles Times (May 3, 1996).

Dr. Albert Cortez is director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership and acting director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]