Immigrant access to education strengthens America. Policymakers must protect it.

By Suma Setty

This day marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Plyler v. Doe (Plyler) decision and the 10th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Both policy successes have advanced educational equity and economic progress for undocumented children and youth in the United States. Our society and economy have also benefited from the contributions made possible by Plyler and DACA. As anti-immigrant rhetoric and practices threaten these gains, policymakers must commit to strengthening protections for young people in Plyler and DACA.

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that all children residing in the United States must have access to a public education, regardless of their or their families’ immigration status. The ruling was justified by the equal protection clause under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This established a constitutional right to a free K-12 public education, ensuring every child has the opportunity to learn how to read, write, communicate, and live full lives.

Because of the Plyler decision, today 620,000 undocumented children—commonly referred to as “Dreamers”—are currently enrolled in K-12 schools. Millions of children in mixed-status families, many of whom are U.S. citizens, can also access public education regardless of their caregivers’ immigration status.

The Plyler ruling, however, did not extend to postsecondary education, leaving thousands of Dreamers with few options to continue their education beyond high school or obtain legal work authorization.

That changed 10 years ago today with the introduction of DACA, completely altering the life trajectories of hundreds of thousands of Dreamers. DACA provides those who meet the age, education, and other requirements with protection from deportation and a two-year renewable work authorization. Since the program’s inception, more than 800,000 young people have benefited from the program. As of December 2021, there were 611,470 active DACA recipients nationwide. Because of DACA, thousands of Dreamers have been able to earn college degrees, increase their incomes, and help their families. Approximately 300,000 U.S.-born children have parents with DACA, providing their families with additional stability and economic security.

Plyler and DACA have very real benefits for undocumented children and children in mixed-status families. But these laws and policies also promote all students’ educational achievement and the nation’s economic growth. Research shows that the presence of immigrant children in public schools benefits all students. For example:

  • A Florida-based study found that U.S.-born students with more immigrant peers scored better on math and reading tests than similar students with fewer immigrant peers.
  • Moreover, school officials and teachers have highlighted the numerous benefits education for all has had on their communities, from workforce development to fostering empathy.
  • In recognition of the value of educating undocumented students, several states have also adopted tuition equity laws to expand access to postsecondary education for undocumented students.

People with DACA are better able to participate in society and the economy, including through increasing the skilled workforce and paying federal, state, and local taxes. Individuals with DACA pay $6.2 billion in federal taxes and $3.3 billion in state and local taxes annually. DACA-eligible households have over $19.4 billion in spending power. DACA recipients are critical to the economy; 343,000 held essential jobs during the pandemic, including as health care workers and educators.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric; ongoing threats to the DACA program and to in-state tuition policies; and problematic enrollment practices can have a chilling effect on the immigrant community pursuing education. These attacks can undermine enrollment of immigrant children in public schools as well as DACA renewals and applications.

On the anniversaries of these momentous policy achievements, we want to celebrate, but also continue to safeguard and advance the economic and educational empowerment of children of immigrants. District officials must ensure schools uphold their obligations under Plyler, while policymakers must work to strengthen and expand the DACA program to make it more inclusive. Congress must also secure a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth. Today we celebrate. Tomorrow, we will continue to push for change.

For more information about the importance of Plyler and DACA, watch CLASP’s Director of Immigration and Immigrant Families, Wendy Cervantes, in Episode 13: Educating Immigrants — Building the Future Workforce from the Rational Middle.