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Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez Speaks at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Plyler v. Doe 30th Anniversary Event


Washington, DC
United States

It’s an honor and a pleasure to be here with all of you today to mark the 30th anniversary of Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision making clear that all children, regardless of their immigration status, must be made welcome in our nation’s schools. I want to thank the ACLU for organizing this symposium, and Laura Murphy for the gracious welcome.

At the Civil Rights Division, we work to break down the barriers that keep so many from fully participating in American life - in the voting booth, the workplace, and of course, in the classroom. For the past three decades, Plyler has kept the door to opportunity open for millions of children across America. Plyler has stood for the proposition that public schools serve all children in this country, no matter where they were born. Plyler has represented the promise that the American dream should be accessible to all.


Plyler reflects the deeply American notion that all young people deserve the chance to advance as far as their hard work and talent can carry them. Every day, we hear about and work with students who, thanks to Plyler, are able to complete elementary and high school; who, without the benefit of financial aid, find a way to get a college degree, and who push on to fulfill a dream of becoming an architect, teacher or even a lawyer. These students are daily beneficiaries of Plyler, and their achievements are an inspiring example of why its holding is so critical.

Just over one year ago, together with our partners at the Department of Education, we issued guidance on the right of all students to enroll in school regardless of their or their parents’ immigration status. The guidance reminded schools of their obligations under Plyler and federal civil rights laws more generally and made clear that:

  • A child who resides in a state cannot be denied access to its public schools, whether or not the child is legally in the United States.
  • Schools cannot have policies that bar or discourage students from attending school based on immigration status.
  • Schools cannot have enrollment requirements that have the purpose or result of denying children access based on race or national origin.
  • Schools cannot deny enrollment if students or their parents choose not to provide a social security number or, if a district requests a birth certificate, provide a foreign birth certificate. 

We issued the Plyler guidance to help schools meet these obligations – because it’s the law, and because there’s so much at stake. No one benefits when a child is kept out of the classroom. The cost to that child, and to all of us, is just too great.

Three decades ago, the Plyler court noted the folly of depriving innocent children of the basic tools to contribute to society:

“By denying these children a basic education,” the court said, “we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions, and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our Nation.”

Thirty years later, countless children have benefited from the Plyler decision, receiving an education and with it, a chance at a better life. Indeed, throughout this country, we see the promise of Plyler borne out. We see young people graduating from high school and reaping many of the benefits that come with a high school diploma. We see students pursuing their dreams of college and beyond, despite sometimes daunting obstacles. Because of Plyler, these young people are getting the opportunity to advance based on their individual merit – the essence of the American dream.

The benefits of Plyler are felt by all of us, wherever we or our ancestors were born. Three decades after Plyler, immigrant students have made and continue to make vast and deep contributions to America’s cultural, civic, and economic landscape. Studies show that over time, the economic contributions of children of immigrants – who enter the labor force and pay far more in taxes than they receive in benefits – are on par with those of their classmates. In the schools, these children and their classmates reap the documented benefits of a diverse school environment. All over the country, we see immigrant children and their families contributing richly to their schools and the cultural, social, and economic fabric of this country. Thirty years after Plyler, the wisdom and moral strength of its holding are clearer than ever.

Undocumented children and c hildren from immigrant families, however, continue to face barriers to enrolling in, and attending, school. For example, in 2011, Alabama passed a law known as H.B. 56, and in doing so, placed a road block at the school house door. H.B. 56 is Alabama’s immigration law – a law that, among other things, directly targets students by requiring schools to verify the immigration status of enrolling children and their parents.

Right after H.B. 56 went into effect, the Civil Rights Division had boots on the ground. I attended a town hall meeting at an Alabama elementary school. There, I listened to parents, students and teachers share the deep and immediate impact H.B. 56 had on their lives. In Birmingham, which occupies a central place in the history of the civil rights movement, I heard from a diverse group of civil rights, faith and education leaders who were unified in condemning the effect of H.B. 56 on Alabama’s schoolchildren.

We sought data on enrollment and attendance from the Alabama State Department of Education to get a more systemic sense of the impact of H.B. 56. Just last month, we shared our review with the state. While H.B. 56 was only in effect for a short time before being enjoined by the courts, the data revealed that the law had a major and lasting impact on Alabama’s schoolchildren, particularly Hispanic students and English Language Learners. Absences among Alabama’s Hispanic students tripled after the immigration law went into effect, while staying flat for other groups of students. Withdrawals of Hispanic children also spiked when compared with previous years, with more than 13 percent of the state’s Hispanic students withdrawing between the beginning of the school year and February 2012.

Our conversations with students and parents underscored the dramatic picture painted by the state’s data. Students told us they stayed home or withdrew from school out of fear that they or their parents would be questioned about their immigration status. Others returned to school but told us they couldn’t concentrate in class and that they no longer felt safe and welcome in their classrooms. Parents told us about watching their honors students’ grades drop in the aftermath of H.B. 56.

We also met with Alabama teachers and administrators -- educators who know just how much every school day counts in the life of a student. They are deeply committed to keeping students engaged, to getting parents involved, and to promoting inclusive environments at school. They felt that H.B. 56 has frustrated their efforts. And they told us about the tremendous time spent and the emotional toll of comforting children whose schoolmates have disappeared from the classrooms.

We will continue to closely watch and respond to the developments in Alabama as well as in any other states where students’ access to education is curtailed. Alabama presents a dramatic challenge to the goals and values of Plyler, but across the country we see the persistence of barriers that limit educational opportunities. At the Civil Rights Division, these are challenges that we are working to address.

In the year since we issued the Plyler guidance, we have provided technical assistance to schools about their responsibility to enroll students regardless of their immigration status. We have investigated complaints about schools that have requested social security numbers from students and/or parents, thereby discouraging - if not directly prohibiting - many undocumented students from coming to school. We have also investigated complaints that schools have not made their registration procedures accessible to parents who have limited proficiency in English. These are the day-to-day barriers that immigrant students face as they try to receive an education and start down the path of a better future.

Our efforts to remove these barriers continue in districts throughout this country. For example, in states like North Carolina and Kentucky, we have worked with schools to revise enrollment policies and remove requirements that students produce social security numbers. In the Palm Beach County, Fla. School District, we have worked to ensure that the district’s requirements for proving residency do not create barriers for immigrant students, and that policies and forms are translated for parents who are not proficient in English. These districts are taking proactive steps to make sure that students and their families are welcomed in school, regardless of background.

To fully realize the goals and the promise of Plyler, we must do even more as a nation. We must come together in honor of the young men and women who were not yet citizens of the U.S. yet risked – and lost - their lives in the Iraq war. They fought and died for their country before they were allowed to call it their own.

For those young people who hope to continue on to college, or to bravely serve our nation in the armed forces, we must continue to break down barriers.  The President has spoken about the simple justice and common sense of the DREAM Act.  The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for immigrant students who aspire to higher education, or who serve with valor in the U.S. military.  These talented young people truly represent the best of what America has to offer.   More than anything, they want to pursue their dreams and contribute to this country, a country that they know and love as their own.  Passing the DREAM Act, and passing comprehensive immigration reform to fix our broken immigration system, will bring us closer to the ultimate value that underlies the Plyler decision -- that every child should have the chance to succeed to the very limits of his or her talent and ambition.  


Plyler represents the best of our collective ideals as a nation. Those ideals of equality, justice, and fairness are central to the mission of the Civil Rights Division. Although countless children – and our country as a whole – have directly benefited from Plyler’s holding, the past year has shown us that we still have far to travel. At the Civil Rights Division, we will continue to use all tools at our disposal to fulfill the promise of Plyler, and to keep the schoolhouse door open to all.

Updated September 17, 2014