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Texas governor says the state may contest a Supreme Court ruling on migrant education

Border Patrol officers process a migrant family after they crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. on Thursday in Roma, Texas.
Brandon Bell
Getty Images
Border Patrol officers process a migrant family after they crossed the Rio Grande into the U.S. on Thursday in Roma, Texas.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says his state shouldn't have to provide free public schooling to undocumented students, despite a long-standing Supreme Court decision that says the opposite.

The high court's Plyler v. Doe ruling of 1982 struck down a Texas law that did two things: It denied state funds for any students deemed not to have lawfully entered the U.S., and it allowed public school districts to deny admission to those children.

Abbott first made his remarks about the landmark education decision on Wednesday, in the aftermath of a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Abbott said the court's 1982 ruling had imposed an unfair burden on his state.

"I think we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again, because the expenses are extraordinary and the times are different" from when the decision came down, Abbott said in an interview with conservative radio host Joe Pagliarulo.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court said the Texas legislation violated the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and would create a distinct underclass.

An advocacy group slams Abbott for his remarks

In response to Abbot's remarks, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) — which filed the original case on behalf of four families whose children were denied a public education — sharply criticized the governor.

Abbott is seeking "to inflict by intention the harms that nine justices agreed should be avoided 40 years ago," said Thomas Saenz, MALDEF's president and general counsel, in a news release.

The 1982 decision was a 5-4 ruling, but the justices who dissented in the case did indeed say that it was "senseless for an enlightened society to deprive any children — including illegal aliens — of an elementary education."

Their dissenting opinion, written by then-Chief Justice Warren Burger, said the court's majority was overreaching to compensate for the lack of "effective leadership" from Congress on immigration.

Saenz also said that unlike Roe v. Wade, the Plyler v. Doe decision has been incorporated into federal law.

Migrants wait to be processed after crossing the Rio Grande into the U.S. on Tuesday in La Joya, Texas.
Brandon Bell / Getty Images
Getty Images
Migrants in La Joya, Texas, on Tuesday wait to be processed after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States.

The governor predicts a coming influx of migrants

After his initial remarks, Abbott reiterated on Thursday that his state is in an untenable position.

"The Supreme Court has ruled states have no authority themselves to stop illegal immigration into the states," Abbott said, according to The Texas Tribune. "However, after the Plyler decision they say, 'Nevertheless, states have to come out of pocket to pay for the federal government's failure to secure the border.' So one or both of those decisions will have to go."

Abbott said Texas' challenges will get worse when the Biden administration ends the Trump-era public health order known as Title 42, which has barred migrants from the U.S. in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The shift will bring a new influx of immigrants, he said.

In that respect, the governor is echoing an argument his state made in the Plyler case 40 years ago. In that Supreme Court hearing, then-Texas Assistant Attorney General Richard Arnett said Texas was hoping to discourage immigrants from entering the state illegally.

"The problem is not the kids that are here," he said. "The problem is the future."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.