The Texas gubernatorial election is only a few months away, and undocumented students have a lot at stake this year. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, up for reelection, has spent much of his last term signing legislation hostile to some of the state’s most vulnerable populations, including women, LGBTQ+ youth, pregnant people, and migrants. More recently, the governor made headlines on The Joe Pags Show when discussing Plyer v. Doe, the 1982 landmark Supreme Court of the United States case that made public school education accessible to all students regardless of immigration status.
“I think we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again because the expenses are extraordinary and the times are different,” Abbott said during the May 3 interview.
Abbott later told the Texas Tribune that some decisions regarding immigration and education “will have to go,” and inaccurately claimed that “The Supreme Court has ruled states have no authority themselves to stop illegal immigration into the states.”
Reactions from activists
Many immigrant rights organizations have condemned Abbott’s remarks and asked that he take back his statement.
“Undercutting Plyer v. Doe would take away the ability of undocumented immigrant children to access the same free public education that is available to all other children in the U.S.,” said Robert Heyman, the strategic advisor for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center (LAIAC), a legal aid nonprofit in El Paso, Texas. “Families will be unable to afford education, ultimately creating a crisis. Moreover, the difficulties families face in resolving this situation would likely be used as a mechanism to criminalize immigrant families. Undocumented families will still be subject to state laws requiring them to educate their children, but will be unable to do so, turning those families into potential targets for child welfare investigations and prosecutions that will end up with immigrants in [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)] deportation proceedings.”
Plyer was brought to the Supreme Court after a school expelled students who were unable to provide birth certificates. The case set a crucial precedent that gives all kids equal opportunity and rights in all 50 states. If the decision is overturned, states would be able to ban undocumented students from accessing free public school education.
Overturning Plyer would also affect every student in the state public school system because the amount of funding public school districts receive is dependent on enrollment. Driving down enrollments by removing undocumented kids from schools will lower the budget for school districts, affecting education systems across the board.
Heyman said it would be foolish for Abbott to try to revoke the education of undocumented students since other students would be affected and taxpayers would be forced to compensate for lost funds.
“It will destroy our educational system, destroy our future workforce, trample on innovation and entrepreneurialism,” Heyman said. “It would be terrible not just for the families and kids directly impacted, but for all of us. A profoundly bad and utterly stupid idea.”
Heyman believes Abbott is trying to intimidate families and said he hopes parents don’t shy away from sending their kids to school. He also said the legal community will challenge any threat to public school education if Abbott acts on his statements.
“It is important to reassure immigrant communities that there is no current threat or risk to them by sending their children to school,” Heyman said. “The governor’s currently idle threats are not a reason to not send your kids to school. At the same time, these statements are cause for alarm and we need to be preparing—as a legal community, and alongside students, immigrants, educators, business leaders, and anyone concerned about the path this would lay out for the future of Texas and the U.S.”
Undocumented students speak out
Since other landmark Supreme Court precedents have already fallen this year,, it is not absurd to imagine the possibility of undocumented students losing access to public schools, and the prospect has caused some fear and frustration from many Texas students.
“It’s just not fair to constantly be having to look for ways to do things that everyone else just does freely,” said Sal, an undocumented ninth-grader from El Paso, Texas, who used a pseudonym to protect their identity. “Governor Abbott threatens my education, my rights, and my future.”
Since many undocumented students face limited opportunities compared to their peers, making the most of their high school education is especially important. Scholarships, for instance, are mostly available to U.S. citizens, and in-state tuition loans are not available to some undocumented people. Many undocumented students are working twice as hard to get to the same point as others while being twice as disadvantaged.
“Public school is my only option,” Sal said. “This would set me on the path to not graduate, and it’s hard because I’ve done everything right: turned in my work, volunteered, been part of school clubs, but somehow everything is going wrong.”
Overturning Plyer could also affect other vulnerable communities in Texas, and some undocumented students worry it could lead to an attack on minorities as a whole.
“Plyer v. Doe allows for people of all backgrounds to get an education,” said Berto, an undocumented high school student from Austin, Texas, who also used a pseudonym. “If it’s undocumented kids today, it’ll be minority students next. That is just the sad reality of this. I should not be considered any less human because of my legal status.”
Some undocumented students shared how being forced out of public school would affect their families and home life.
“I’d probably help my parents with their job, see if I can make any extra money,” Berto said. “Maybe even try to graduate early before this gets any worse. It’s hard for them as well, because they came here for opportunities, and now they’re taking it away. It’s like, what was this for?”
As undocumented students in Texas await the results of the next election, they urge voters to use their voices to send the governor and other state legislators a clear message: Challenge this hate at the ballot box.
“I just want to tell people to get out and vote,” Sal said. “I can’t vote on these issues that are going to affect me but you can. Vote and challenge this type of hate.”