Do Children of Illegal Immigrants Have the Right to an Education in the US?

By Maryanne Schiffman - Updated September 29, 2017
portrait of a girl (10-12 years) holding up grade on a card

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The term “illegal immigrant” carries a lot of baggage that often misinforms and clouds debate on important public policy issues. One of these issues regards access to public education. In 2009, there were 16. 8 million children in the U.S. whose parents are immigrants; of these children, the vast majority are citizens or legal U.S. residents. Only a small percentage of children of undocumented parents are also undocumented themselves, and for those who are, federal law mandates that states educate them.

Children of Immigrants

The percentage of children with a foreign-born parent increased from 13 percent in 1990 to 23 percent in 2009, or close to one in four. Yet contrary to common perception, the vast majority of these children are in the U.S. legally. Only 26 percent of immigrants in the U.S. are undocumented, and of these, only about 1.6 million are children. Another 3 million children with undocumented parents are U.S. citizens because they were born in the U.S.

Federal Law

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe that undocumented children have the same right to attend public primary and secondary schools as U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Additionally, it recognized that undocumented students, like children who are legal residents and citizens, are obliged under state law to attend school until they reach a legally mandated age.

Public Education Policy

According to the Plyler ruling, public schools may not deny admission to a student on the basis of immigration status; treat a student differently to determine immigration status or engage in practices that would dissuade students from exercising their right of access to school.

In addition, the ruling notes that school may not require students or parents to disclose or document their immigration status; ask questions of students or parents to expose their immigration status; or require Social Security numbers from all students, thus exposing immigration status.

Additionally, all school personnel should be aware that they have no legal obligation to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

Alabama Law Struck Down

In a wave of state legislation passed to address illegal immigration, a provision of an Alabama law that ordered public schools to check the citizenship status of new students was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court in August 2012. Judges said fear of the law would deter undocumented children from enrolling in and attending school, and in fact educators in Alabama had reported many students withdrawing from schools after the legislation was passed. However, after the federal court blocked the school provision, school districts said many children returned to class

Getting What You Pay For

Supporters of laws such as Alabama’s argue that children of undocumented immigrants should not benefit from U.S. public schools unless their parents are in the country legally. However opponents of the laws reply that children should not be punished for the acts of their parents. Opponents further point out that the president’s Council of Economic Advisers has estimated that undocumented immigrants pay $80,000 more in taxes per person than they consume in government benefits over their lifetimes. This is because immigrants who work with false social security numbers have money taken out of their paychecks for FICA and personal income withholding that they can never use or claim in tax returns, respectively. They also contribute to the tax base every time they buy something by paying sales taxes like the rest of us. In light of this opponents argue, at the very least, these children should get what their parents pay for.


In June of 2012 President Obama signed an executive order called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, ordering immigration officials to halt deportations of undocumented youth who came into the U.S. as children and who have finished high school or served in the US military. Immigrants who meet these criteria may file petitions to stay in the country legally on a temporary basis. The legislation allows for those approved to study in the U.S. as well.

Opponents of DACA say that the legislation only rewards illegal behavior, but supporters counter that the government can't punish someone for something they did unknowingly when they were 2 years old. What’s more they argue, these young people have grown up their entire lives in the U.S. and America is the only country they have ever known; in this sense, they are as American as any one of us.

About the Author

Based in Medellín, Colombia, Maryanne Schiffman has a B.A. in economic development from UC Berkeley and an M.A. in Latin American studies from the University of Texas. Writing for more than 20 years, she has contributed to academic journals and online publications, including the Colombian NTN24 news website.

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