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by a police escort. It was still dark when they got to the courthouse; 10-year-old Laura fell back to sleep. Several days later she returned to school. Many years later Laura learned what happened that day, after she was hustled into the courthouse through a back door. It was this: After the state of Texas decided it would no longer pay to educate undocumented children, the Tyler Independent School District started charging $1,000 a year in tuition for students like Laura. The children of Humberto Alvarez, who worked at a local meatpacking plant, could no longer go to school. Along with three other families, Humberto and Jackeline filed suit in federal court against Superintendent James Plyler and the local school board. On that September morning, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice held a hearing on their case. He would ultimately rule that the Texas statute and local policy were unconstitutional. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed his decision, and the case, along with a similar one from Houston, eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 15, 1982, the court ruled 5-4 that the Texas law effectively barred undocumented children from attending public schools, a violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. The sleepy girl in the station wagon, known as L. Loe in court papers, was a protagonist in a quintessential Texas story that has profoundly affected families and school districts throughout the country for the past 25 years. Because of Plyler v. Doe, hundreds of thousands of children have gone to school who otherwise would not have, says Justice, adding that Plyler is the case he’d like most to be remembered for after nearly four decades on the federal bench. Despite feverish efforts to overturn the ruling in the mid1990s, it remains the law of the land, and continues to play a role in the nation’s never-ending, increasingly rancorous debate over immigration. Thirty years ago, attorney Larry Daves recalls, “The atmosphere was very similar to what we have now. There was a hysteria about undocumented workers.” Now practicing in southern Colorado, Daves spent much of the ’70s and ’80s doing civil rights and labor law in East Texas. There was more than enough workparticularly for someone not averse to occasionally being paid in kind. In the summer of 1977, a Catholic lay worker contacted Daves at his Tyler office, desperate for someone to represent a group of children who were being told they could no longer go to school. Until 1975, Texas required school districts to admit students without regard to their immigration status. But in the waning hours of the 1975 legislative session, the Texas Education Code was amended to prohibit spending state funds on students who were not U.S. citizens or legally admitted to the country. The amendment, which also authorized school districts to exclude undocumented students, passed by voice vote, with no debate and no legislative historyno num The children of Humberto Alvarez, who worked at a local meatpacking plant, could no longer go to school. bers, no studies of how many students would be affected or the amendment’s financial impact. To some it was prejudice, pure and simple. Others saw it as one more step in a complex dance involving school finance reform and the state’s efforts to obtain federal funding for overcrowded schools, especially along the border. Years later, when questioned by attorneys, a majority of legislators would say that they had no idea what they were voting for. At first, Tyler school officials ignored the law. “I guess I was soft-hearted and concerned about the kids, not wanting to penalize them for something the parents had done,” Superintendent Plyler testified. But fearing that the district would become “a haven” for families moving in to get an education, on July 21, 1977, the board of trustees began requiring parents to pay $1,000 tuition for each undocumented child. “We weren’t rich enough that we could enroll youngsters that the state would not reimburse for everyday attendance,” Plyler later explained. At the time, fewer than 60 students, out of a total enrollment of 16,000, were undocumented. After agreeing to represent the families, Daves called the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Peter Roos, a MALDEF lawyer specializing in education cases, was already spinning out legal theories for a potential court challenge. He and Daves began preparing a case on behalf of four undocumented families from Mexico: Jose and Rosario Robles, Jose and Lidia Lopez, Felix Hernandez, and Humberto and Jackeline Alvarez. The families had lived in Tyler for between three and 13 years, working in agriculture, meatpacking, foundries, and the city’s world famous rose industry. They had rent receipts and car titles; some had income tax statements. The Robles family had bought a house. All had at least one child who was a U.S. citizen. “The main thing I remember,” Daves says, “was we were just really terrified these folks were going to get deported.” Judge Justice allowed the plaintiffs to be identified by pseudonymsDoe, Roe, Boe, and Loebut made it clear that he was obligated to release information about their identities if the Immigration and Naturalization Service asked him to do so. To ease concerns about media attention and courtroom spectators, however, Justice set the hearing for a preliminary injunction for 6 a.m. on September 9. Before the hearing, Daves reminded his clients that they were doing something terribly important. There were no guarantees. The law had already been unsuccessfully chal JULY 13, 2007 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15