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ERIC Digest



Undocumented immigrants are people who have not been legally admitted into the United States. Estimates of the size of this population vary widely, from about 3 million to 12 million (Willshire Carrera, 1989a). Census data suggest, however, that of the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country, 77 percent are from Mexico and Latin America. Approximately 20 percent come (in equal numbers) from Asia and Europe (Willshire Carrera, 1989a).

 One-fifth of all undocumented immigrants are estimated to be children under the age of 15 (Willshire Carrera, 1989a). Although undocumented children are not legal residents of the United States, they have the right to attend public school. Since 1982, a Supreme Court ruling, Plyler v Doe, has guaranteed this right.

 This Digest reports the background of this landmark case and describes the difficulties that undocumented children are likely to face as a result of their status. Next, it considers the educational rights of undocumented children and the responsibilities of schools that serve them. Finally, it summarizes both practices to avoid and practices that can benefit this group of students.



 The access of undocumented children to public schools in the U.S. is naturally an issue in states like Texas, where many undocumented immigrants live (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1988). Before 1982, a Texas law prevented state funds from being used for the education of undocumented children. Under Texas law, Local Education Agencies (LEAs) could deny enrollment to such students.

 In Plyler v Doe, however, the United States Supreme Court held, in a five-to-four decision, that the Texas law was unconstitutional. The ruling was based on the equal protection provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Of particular concern to the Court was the fact that children--rather than their parents--were involved (Uerling, 1982). The Court believed that denying undocumented children access to education punished children for their parents' behavior. Such an action, the Court noted, did not square with basic ideas of justice (Uerling, 1982).

 Following the Plyler ruling, many undocumented students began to attend public schools in the United States (Haney, 1987). Because of the protections imposed by Plyler, however, the exact size of this group of students is difficult to estimate…