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No Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Schoolchildren

reviewed by Lisa Garcia - June 20, 2014

coverTitle: No Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Schoolchildren
Author(s): Michael A. Olivas
Publisher: New York University Press, New York
ISBN: 0814762441, Pages: 206, Year: 2012
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Michael Olivas’s 2012 book, No Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Schoolchildren, offers a thorough examination of the pivotal 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, Plyler v. Doe. With the Plyler decision, the Court struck down a Texas statute denying education funding to undocumented immigrant children as well as a Texas school district’s attempt to charge undocumented students tuition. The Plyler decision ensured that the nations’ public primary and secondary schools cannot verify immigration status as a condition of enrollment, guaranteeing undocumented immigrant children the right to enroll in and attend public K–12 schools free of charge.

In this short, five-chapter book, Olivas, a prominent and seasoned education and legal scholar, provides the reader with a rich and detailed overview of the Plyler decision. In the first chapter, he sets the scene for both the informed and less informed reader, framing his book within the larger evolving and complex national undocumented immigration debate. He states,

Paradoxically, in the early 21st century, there has been a rise in the country’s anti-immigrant sentiment, especially in the growing enactment of state and local ordinances …. At the same time … there have been widespread efforts to incorporate these children and undocumented families into the larger community. (pp. 2–3)

More pointedly, Olivas references what he considers “the contradictory depiction of Latinos, as alternately shiftless and lazy and also too eager to work and to steal jobs” (p. 4) as the primary impetus for restrictionist laws and practices that Plyler addressed over 30 years ago yet still persist today.

In Chapter Two, Olivas provides his readers with a thorough history of the Plyler case including the 1970s Texas legislation and policy that prompted the original lawsuits. He then turns to the complexities of the litigation strategy led by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the case itself, and the effects of the critiques and commentaries on the Court’s decision.

Chapter Three delves into the aftermath of Plyler including its implications on later federal, state, and local legislation, policies, and practices including California’s controversial and contested Proposition 187. Olivas not only discusses the formal legal challenges to Plyler over the years, he also expertly ties what he labels the ongoing “mean-spirited assault on programs that provide resources to undocumented children” to those factions opposed to the 1982 decision.

In Chapter Four, Olivas brings us full circle to the present and discusses the efforts to increase access to postsecondary education. He focuses on the decade-long struggle for the federal Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act including its background, the various state-level DREAM acts, and the myriad issues with providing in-state postsecondary residency and tuition to undocumented immigrant students. Olivas explains why the federal DREAM Act failed to gain congressional support first in 2007 and next in 2010. Finally, he takes on the larger politics of immigration reform and argues why he believes the DREAM Act will likely be a single component of a future comprehensive immigration reform package.

The culminating chapter leaves the reader with a sense that with any struggle, when there is a step forward, there is a corresponding step back in terms of progress and resolution; the struggle to extend the guarantee to postsecondary education for undocumented immigrants is no different. Olivas is optimistic that his side (supporters of immigration reform) will ultimately prevail, choosing to believe in the “generous impulses of communitarian traits in the American character” that will do right by undocumented immigrants permanently residing in the United States.

The book appeals to legal and education scholars as well as education practitioners and undocumented immigrant allies, even if specific sections may be more relevant and engaging to particular audiences than others. As both a researcher and practitioner who works with undocumented immigrant high school students, I believe that this book is a must-read insofar as many of my more frustrating experiences helping undocumented immigrants navigate the K–12 and postsecondary education systems were validated and explicated. As Olivas is intimately familiar with the minutest of challenges that undocumented immigrants face when pursuing an education, he is able to relate equally to the different segments of his audience.

Olivas’s experience with undocumented immigrant education issues lends a particular nuance to the everyday challenges this “almost invisible minority of students” (p. 89) faces when accessing a guaranteed primary and secondary education let alone an unguaranteed postsecondary education. Today it is easy to forget how the Plyler decision directly impacts every single school-age undocumented immigrant residing in the US let alone how it continues to be a touchstone in the national immigration debate for those on both sides of the issue. Ultimately, Olivas’s book successfully contextualizes and bridges the past, present, and future of undocumented immigrants’ legal and everyday access to K–16 education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 20, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17576, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 12:12:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Lisa Garcia
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    LISA D. GARCIA is the Director of Outreach Programs in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California (USC). She recently published a book, Undocumented and Unwanted: Attending College Against the Odds, which chronicled the experiences of undocumented immigrant students attending four-year institutions in California. As outreach director, she manages two college preparation programs that help facilitate undocumented and first-generation college studentsí successful transition to postsecondary studies. She continues to research issues of equity, access, and diversity pertaining to first-generation college students.
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