After cleaning houses all day, 23-year-old Damaris makes a half-hour trek to the Newcomers Charter School for night classes. She’s just a few months away from earning a high school diploma, enrolling in classes at Houston Community College and trying to land a job in the business world.
Working and studying 15 hours a day has not been easy, but Damaris said she knows the effort will give her a chance at a middle-class lifestyle that wouldn’t have been possible in Mexico.
“This school changed my life. I have a new opportunity,” Damaris, who overstayed her visa a few years, said of the $450,000 program that the Houston Independent School District opened last year at Lee High School to provide night and Saturday classes to about 200 recent immigrants.
Damaris, who asked to be identified by her middle name, and an estimated 1.5 million students in the country illegally—including possibly 20,000 to 35,000 in HISD—can thank a 1982 Supreme Court ruling for opening the doors of public schools to them. The ruling, which held that young people cannot be denied an education because of immigration status, has changed the face of public school systems in the Houston area and the United States.
Few districts have felt the impact of the historic Supreme Court case, called Plyler v. Doe, more than Houston.
In addition to requiring extra books, teachers and classroom space, HISD had to ramp up bilingual instruction, increase social services and develop programs to help countless immigrants catch up academically.
The district created the Newcomers Charter School and even foots the entire bill for some students—such as Damaris—who are too old to qualify for state funding.
Studies put Texas’ cost of educating undocumented students as high as $1.65 billion a year, an expense that easily outpaces other costs associated with illegal immigration, such as medical and criminal justice services, experts say.
These students, who often can’t speak English when they enroll and are years behind in their studies, are more expensive to educate. Also, their families typically pay less taxes than others—a lopsided equation that critics say adds tension to one of the most controversial issues of the day.
“They’re not paying their share of those services merely because they’re poorer than most people. They’re younger, and they have more children in public school,” Rubenstein said. “They are basically subsidized by people who are not immigrants.”
In the mid-1970s, undocumented students attended school in makeshift classrooms at churches and in community centers on the northside and East End of Houston, said Isaias Torres, an attorney who represented undocumented students in the landmark case.
At the escuelitas—Spanish for “little schools”—students of all ages crammed into one or two classrooms to study reading, writing and math.
“It was kind of a throwback to the 1930s,” Torres said. “The facilities were nothing. (The teachers) were volunteers, but the parents wanted the children to be educated.”
At that time, Texas schools either denied admission or required undocumented students to pay out-of-district tuition. Texas schools collected $23 million in tuition in 1982-83—some of which would have been from undocumented students, Texas Education Agency officials said.
A group of undocumented students filed the class-action lawsuit in 1977, seeking the same free public education as U.S.-born children.
The case played out in a district court in Houston, where lawyers representing districts from across the state argued that the influx of undocumented students could ruin public schools.
“So many states, like California, New York and Illinois, they were waiting to see what was going to happen here,” Torres said. “There was a lot of interest.”
It took about two months to try the case. The ruling to overturn Texas’ policy was upheld in appeals to the 5th Circuit in 1980 and then to the Supreme Court in 1982.
Now, because of the protections afforded to immigrants under the ruling, schools don’t even try to count how many undocumented students are enrolled.
“There’s no reason to ask. Even if you could do it legally, why would you want to?” University of Texas law professor Barbara Hines said. “It has a chilling effect.”
The numbers that are available: 59 percent of HISD’s 208,000 students are Hispanic, roughly 60,000 are classified as “Limited English Proficient,” and 10,130 students are considered “immigrants”—meaning that they were born outside the U.S. and have been in U.S. schools for three years or less.
The number of Hispanic students in HISD has more than doubled since the 1982 ruling. The district now spends $158 million a year on bilingual and English as a Second Language programs and hires 2,391 teachers—about 20 percent of the teaching staff—for those classes, according to state records.
The cost of illegal immigration to Texas’ public schools jumps to about $4 billion a year, according to one study, when the immigrants’ children—some of whom were born in the United States and are, therefore, citizens—are counted.
In return, their families contribute nearly $1 billion to the state sales and property tax coffers, according to a study by Jack Martin, special projects director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports tighter restrictions on immigration.