Earlier this week, state Sen. Russell Pearce (R-AZ), the sponsor of Arizona’s newest immigration law, stated that he plans on introducing legislation that would require undocumented immigrant parents to pay tuition in order for their children to attend public schools in Arizona. However, Pearce’s proposal would be in clear violation of the historic Plyler vs. Doe decision in which the Supreme Court ruled against a state statute denying education funding to undocumented children in 1982. Nonetheless, in response to a question on whether Plyler vs. Doe will be “taken on,” Michael Hethmon, general counsel for the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI), stated in an interview with the Dallas Morning News that “[w]e have already drafted up the legislation in several different states, and I am sure that to the extent that the wave of this unrest continues you will see it tried.”
To begin with, the IRLI is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant group that has most recently been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. While Pearce sponsored SB-1070, IRLI lawyers with an office based in Washington, DC were the brains responsible for crafting the legislation. IRLI describes itself as “America’s only public interest law organization working exclusively to protect the legal rights, privileges, and property of U.S. citizens and their communities from injuries and damages caused by unlawful immigration.” In other words, they get paid a lot of money to exploit fear and frustration over the nation’s broken immigration system by writing laws for states and localities that push the limits of legality and then make even more money when they get to defend them in court. So, chances are Hethmon has a pretty good idea about what kinds of anti-immigrant pieces of legislation his firm stands to profit from in the future.
With that said, challenging Plyler vs. Doe would likely be a costly legal battle. The majority opinion left little ambiguity. According to Justice William Brennan, the “denial of education to some isolated group of children poses an affront to one of the goals of the Equal Protection Clause: the abolition of governmental barriers presenting unreasonable obstacles to advancement on the basis of individual merit.” In his decision, Brennan cited the Brown v. Board of Education ruling which dictated that education “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” Brennan also noted that not doing so isn’t even in the state’s interest. “It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime,” noted Brennan while also adding that it probably wouldn’t be enough to cause undocumented immigrants to leave.
It would also be a logistical nightmare. Schools officials would basically become de facto immigration agents, checking the immigration status of all the students who register to receive public education. It’s also unclear exactly how high “tuition” would be, but it’s hard to believe it would make up for the exorbitant amount of money, training, and time associated with checking every student’s immigration status — resources that probably would be better spent on actual teaching. And if Pearce hypothetically succeeds in his ridiculous attempt to deny the American-born children of undocumented immigrants citizenship, not even a birth certificate would qualify as proof of legal residence.
Plyler vs. Doe probably isn’t going to stop Pearce or IRLI from moving forward with their attack on poor, mostly brown immigrants. And while it’s hard to say whether their efforts will get very far, their assault on children and babies shows just how far they’re willing to go on their “attrition through enforcement” crusade.