On August 14, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners voted on a highly controversial proposal. Several Commissioners requested the Board authorize local schools to “count” children not legally admitted into the United States. Ultimately, the Board rejected the motion, but not without first stirring up a heated debate among the Commissioners themselves, members of the public, and groups interested in the outcome of the vote.
Throughout the controversy, debaters referenced the United States Supreme Court Case of Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982). The plaintiffs in that case were undocumented schoolchildren who challenged a Texas law that authorized local schools to deny enrollment to students not legally admitted into the United States. In considering the equal-protection claims, the Court refused to provide the plaintiffs the protection of a “suspect class,” as it found entry into the class was the product of voluntary, criminal action.
However, the Court ultimately ruled the Texas law was unconstitutional based on other equal-protection grounds. Specifically, the Court found the Fourteenth Amendment extends to anyone subject to the laws of a state. As such, legislation that denies education undermines a primary goal of the Equal Protection Clause. That goal is the prohibition of governmental barriers presenting unreasonable obstacles to individuals’ merit-based advancement.
The Court cited principles from a variety of sources, which – in essence – provide that education is one of the most important governmental functions, as evidenced by compulsory attendance laws and the great sums of money provided to public-school systems. Education teaches students societal values and skills, which serve as the foundation of good citizenship and social order. The Court further provided “education prepares individuals to be self-reliant and self-sufficient participants in society,” so any barrier to education must be grounded in a substantial state interest, which the Court did not find in the Texas case.
In the recent Mecklenburg County controversy, proponents of the proposed measure argue the requested information would have enabled them to “get the facts.” In short, they sought to discover the number of illegal immigrant students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in order to calculate the amount of money taxpayers spend on the educations of students not legally admitted into the country.
Critics of the proposal alleged the Commissioners who introduced the motion acted under the guise of taxpayer watchdogs in order to rally constituents for upcoming elections. Further, they argued that counting illegal immigrant students could have invited bullying and separatism in addition to burdening children with undue stigmas and psychological damage. In response, proponents asserted they did not intend to remove the children from classrooms; they simply wanted the facts.
Amidst the controversy, a CMS representative released a statement on behalf of the school effectively removing itself from the debate. The statement provided that schools could not lawfully inquire about student citizenship and residency status. Although CMS did not cite a specific federal law in support of its position, the ill-fated Texas legislation in Plyler v. Doe should serve as a guidepost. Most certainly, CMS would have an interest in avoiding the uphill battle it would face convincing a court that counting illegal immigrants serves a substantial state interest and would not present an unreasonable barrier to their education.