Free For All: Should Undocumented Children Receive a Public K-12 Education?

Are all kids entitled to a public K-12 education?
Free For All: Should Undocumented Children Receive a Public K-12 Education?
Jun 22, 2011· 3 MIN READ

On May 6, the Department of Education sent a letter to school districts around the country reminding them that all children, whether they are in this country legally or not, are entitled to a public K-12 education.

That’s been the law of the land since the 1982 Supreme Court Plyler vs. Doe ruling, which held that Texas could not deny undocumented children access to public schools.

But as increasing numbers of undocumented kids showed up at the schoolhouse door, attempts to subvert the law by discouraging immigrant access were becoming increasingly commonplace.

The Office of Civil Rights investigated several complaints about schools checking the immigration status of students trying to enroll.

On June 9, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed a controversial bill requiring all public schools to report the citizenship status of their pupils. In theory, the reporting requirement was for informational purposes only. But critics claimed that undocumented parents, afraid to have their legal status revealed, will keep their children out of school.

Should undocumented children continue to receive a free public education? TakePart recently spoke with immigration experts Ira Mehlman, national media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), and Roberto Gonzales, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington, for further insight.


“Nobody wants to see children go without education,” Mehlman began. “But if you look at the Plyler decision, the court at the time emphasized that illegal immigration did not pose a significant burden on the community. If you fast forward 30 years later, you could reasonably make the case that it is posing a burden on American schools and other institutions.”

The crux of Mehlman’s argument against providing undocumented children with public schooling is simple: America can no longer afford the cost.

“We have finite resources in this country. We know that our education system isn’t keeping up with the demands that are being made on it. Does it make sense to divert more and more funding that is needed by the children of people who are here legitimately and legally to pay for education for millions of kids who are illegal immigrants?”

FAIR is a non-profit organization with more than 250,000 members whose mission is to improve border security, stop illegal immigration, and scale back legal immigration rates to 300,000 people per year. In FAIR’s estimation, educating children of undocumented immigrants costs taxpayers nearly $52 billion a year, with nearly all of those expenses absorbed by state and local governments.

“The failure to enforce immigration laws means that we are going to wind up with enormous burdens being faced by schools and other vital public institutions,” explained Mehlman. “It affects taxpayers, it affects your kid and my kid as they sit in classrooms where half the kids don’t speak English, and resources have to be diverted. Nobody wants to deal with it at the schoolhouse door, which is why we’ve argued that we should have laws in place that make it clear to people: ‘Don’t come to the United States illegally in the first place because you’re not going to benefit.’”


Over the past several years, Dr. Roberto Gonzales interviewed more than 400 undocumented youth. His research centered on the struggles these young people faced growing up in the United States.

Gonzales told TakePart that economic arguments against educating undocumented students don't hold water, and that it is in the country’s best interest to make sure all children attend school.

“While undocumented students represent a sizable enough population to merit critical public policy intervention, they do not represent numbers large enough to stress systems,” Gonzales explained. “And while certain states, like California and Texas in particular, have larger shares of undocumented students in their K-12 schools, the cost to educate them pales in comparison to what it might cost this country if these children were living here without access to schooling.”

Gonzales referred to Justice Brennan’s comments in the Plyler case that denying undocumented children an education would contribute to the development of a growing underclass.

“It is not in this country's best interest to create a subgroup of considerable number cut off from the means to an education and to lift itself out of poverty,” Gonzales added. “From public education, health, and policy perspectives this would have disastrous impacts, not only on these children and their families, but on our country as a whole.”


When Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the court, he raised another oft-cited argument in favor of educating undocumented youth: It would be against “fundamental conceptions of justice” to punish children for their parents’ misconduct.

According to Mehlman, the unfair punishment argument is a moot point. “The fact of life is that children do get penalized for their parents’ mistakes every single day,” he countered. “Parents are ultimately responsible for the consequences of their decisions on their kids. If I don’t pay my taxes, and the IRS comes along and seizes property, freezes bank accounts, and puts us out on the street, my kids will get hurt. I can’t go crying, ‘But my poor kids, they didn’t do anything wrong!’ That’s my fault. It is the parents who are responsible, not society for creating and enforcing laws that were designed to protect the public interest.”

Will the tide of public opinion turn against providing undocumented children a free public education? What do you think?

Photo courtesy of dprevite via Flickr/Creative Commons