In This Article Undocumented College Students and the DREAM Act

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • General Overviews
  • Research Studies and Data
  • Nongovernmental-Organization Studies
  • Litigation
  • Statutes
  • Challenges at the State and Federal Levels
  • Postsecondary Plyler
  • Deferred-Action Policy
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
  • The Politics of Plyler
  • Other Plyler Articles
  • Anti-Immigrant Sentiment
  • Conservative Immigration Perspectives
  • College Students
  • Post-DACA Developments, 2014–
  • Legal Issues Arise with DACA and Employment
  • Immigration Accountability Executive Action
  • DACA and DAPA Litigation
  • DACA in the Trump Administration

Latino Studies Undocumented College Students and the DREAM Act
Michael A. Olivas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0003


Decided by the US Supreme Court in 1982, Plyler v. Doe (cited under Litigation) has extended beyond its kindergarten-to-twelfth-grade origins, revealing that despite its many years of existence, the well-established rights of immigrant children have not been fully resolved and have required additional litigation and vigilance to secure the Supreme Court’s narrow holding. The record reveals substantial and long-standing accommodation to the 1982 development of Plyler and stretches back to 1975, when Texas enacted the offending original state law that gave public school districts the authority to charge tuition to undocumented schoolchildren. The underlying legislative history was unclear and hidden from public view. Without public hearings at the time, certain school superintendents along the Texas border had urged the legislation, which was enacted without controversy as a small piece of larger, routine education statutes. In 1982 Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) attorneys prevailed in the US Supreme Court in a five-to-four decision authored by Justice William J. Brennan Jr. The court struck down the Texas statute, finding the state’s theory to be “nothing more than the assertion that illegal entry, without more, prevents a person from becoming a resident for purposes of enrolling his children in the public schools” (Plyler v. Doe, footnote 22). The justices determined that Texas could not enact legislation “merely by defining a disfavored group as nonresident” (Plyler v. Doe, footnote 22), but they did not reach the issue of preemption, because they were able to strike down the statute’s provisions on more-narrow, equal protection clause grounds. Justice Brennan’s written decision dismissed the three arguments that Texas had advanced: that it was preserving “limited resources,” that it had narrowly tailored the legislation “to stem the tide of illegal immigration” (Plyler v. Doe, [d]), and that the undocumented presence of these children meant that they might not remain in the state and use their educations to productive use for the state. In all, Justice Brennan wrote that the provision did “not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice” (Plyler v. Doe, III-A). Since 1982, Plyler has controlled educational policy in the kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade schooling of unauthorized children. Although the case did not address issues of college access, many of these children have grown up and now attend college, which presents an entirely different set of policy issues and legal constraints. This article summarizes these developments and analyzes state and federal efforts to accommodate or restrict undocumented college students. The national debate about immigration and comprehensive immigration reform has become contentious, particularly on the subject of postsecondary Plyler issues. This article details studies and resources in several areas: Introductory Works, General Overviews, Research Studies and Data, Nongovernmental-Organization Studies, Litigation, Statutes, Challenges at the State and Federal Levels, Postsecondary Plyler, Deferred-Action Policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Politics of Plyler, Other Plyler Articles, Anti-immigrant Sentiment, Conservative Immigration Perspectives, College Students, Post-DACA Developments, 2014–, Legal Issues Arise with DACA and Employment, Immigration Accountability Executive Action, DACA and DAPA Litigation, and DACA in the Trump Administration.

Introductory Works

The many facets of Plyler v. Doe (cited under Litigation) are analyzed and recounted in Olivas 2005 and in much-greater detail in Olivas 2012. In both of these studies the case is situated in the larger historical record and pattern of cases involving immigrant rights and benefits.

  • Olivas, Michael A. “Plyler v. Doe, the Education of Undocumented Children, and the Polity.” In Immigration Stories. Edited by David A. Martin and Peter H. Schuck, 197–220. New York: Foundation Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book provides a useful “back story” to a dozen significant immigration cases that were decided by the US Supreme Court, including Plyler. This chapter about the case uses original Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) documents, including letters among the various parties, and shows how the organization mobilized both internal and external support for the case. It also suggests that the plaintiff children had “good fortune” (p. 211) that blew their way, citing several lucky breaks in the history of the case, such as that the administration of the newly elected president Ronald Reagan did not oppose the case when he first took office and that the luck of the draw in the choices of judges assigned to the case.

  • Olivas, Michael A. No Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Children. New York: New York University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814762448.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Legal study of Plyler at the kindergarten through grade twelve and collegiate levels, including a detailed chronology and political theory of the failure to enact the federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. It is the first full-length, single-authored study of the case.

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