Search Form
First, enter a politician or zip code
Now, choose a category

Public Statements

Flood Insurance Reform and Modernization Act--Motion to Proceed--Continued

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. DURBIN. On June 15, 1982, 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision, Plyler v. Doe. In 1975, the State of Texas had passed a law that allowed public schools to refuse admission to children who were undocumented. The law also withheld State funds from local school districts if they were to be used for education of undocumented kids.

In the Plyler case, the Court struck down the Texas law and held that it is unconstitutional to deny public education to children on the basis of their immigration status. Justice William Brennan, who authored the opinion, wrote: ``By denying these children a basic education, we deny them the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions and foreclose any realistic possibility that they will contribute in even the smallest way to the progress of our nation.''

The year was 1982. In the 30 years since Plyler v. Doe was decided, millions of immigrant children have received an education and become contributing members to America and society. They are today's doctors, soldiers, teachers, engineers, and they make us a better nation.

But since it was decided, Plyler has been under attack from anti-immigration forces. On the very day the decision was announced, there was a lawyer at the Justice Department who wrote a memo criticizing his superiors for not arguing support of this Texas law that was stricken by the Court.

Keep in mind at the time Plyler was decided, the Justice Department was not under the control of a Democratic President; Ronald Reagan was President. Who was the Justice Department lawyer criticizing the Reagan administration for not being tough enough on immigrant children? His name was John Roberts.

Twenty-three years later, in 2005, he was nominated to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. During his confirmation hearing, Chief Justice Roberts said he would not vote to overturn cases that are ``well-settled law.'' For example, he said Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that ordered desegregation of schools, was also well-settled law.

Plyler v. Doe is often called the Brown v. Board of Education of the immigrants in America. But when I asked John Roberts whether he considered Plyler to be well-settled law, he refused to answer my question. Over the years, there have been attempts to pass Federal legislation overturning this Supreme Court decision.

In 1996, Congress was considering a bill to restrict illegal immigrants. Representative Elton Gallegly, a Republican from California, offered an amendment to overturn Plyler v. Doe and permit States to bar undocumented children from public schools. At the time, I was in the House. I voted against the Gallegly amendment and so did most of the Democrats.

But most Republicans voted for it and it passed. President Clinton threatened a veto if the Gallegly amendment was included in the final version of the immigration bill. The amendment was also opposed by a bipartisan group of Senators, including the late great Senator Ted Kennedy and our colleague, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

As a result of this opposition, the Gallegly amendment was dropped from the final version of the bill. The latest threat to Plyler v. Doe is a spate of State laws targeting legal and illegal immigrants. On June 9, 2011, 1 year ago this week, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law H.B. 56, the strictest immigration law in the country.

Under Alabama law H.B. 56, it is a crime for a legal immigrant to fail to carry documents proving his or her legal status at all times. Police officers in Alabama are required to check the immigration status of any individual if they have ``reasonable suspicion that he or she is undocumented.''

I am especially concerned about the provisions of the Alabama law that involve schools in enforcing immigration laws. For example, in Alabama, schools must check the immigration status of every student and report that information to the State. Schools are authorized to report students and parents they believe to be undocumented to the Federal Government.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to every school district in the country warning that enrollment practices that discourage students from attending school could violate Federal civil rights law. The letter reminded school districts of their obligation to provide access to undocumented students under the Supreme Court's decision in Plyler v. Doe.

Supporters of the Alabama law argue it does not prohibit immigrant children from attending public schools. But involving schools in enforcing immigration laws will clearly discourage immigrant children from attending. Last month, Tom Perez, the head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, sent a letter to the Alabama Superintendent of Education about their department's investigation of Alabama's H.B. 56.

Mr. Perez said the Justice Department has concluded that ``in the immediate aftermath of [H.B. 56's] implementation, Hispanic student absence rates tripled, while absence rates for other groups of students remained virtually flat'' and ``the rate of total withdrawals of Hispanic children substantially increased'' to 13.4 percent of all Hispanic students in Alabama schools.

Mr. Perez also said: ``Hispanic children reported increased anxiety, diminished concentration in school, deteriorating grades, and increased hostility, bullying, and intimidation.''

The author of the education provision of the Alabama law has made it clear his real goal is to overturn Plyler v. Doe. If this challenge should make it to the Supreme Court, it could find a receptive audience in the Chief Justice, who criticized Plyler v. Doe when it was decided and refused to say it was well-settled law when he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

I think this is the wrong approach for America. Instead of challenging Plyler vs. Doe, we should be building on its legacy. Eleven years ago, I introduced the DREAM Act--11 years. The DREAM Act is a bill that would give a select group of immigrant students who grew up in America the chance to earn their way to legal status if they do one of two things: serve in America's military or at least complete 2 years of college in good standing.

These young people were brought to the United States as children. I am sure the Presiding Officer knows many of them in his home State. They grew up in this country and, thanks to Plyler v. Doe, they got a chance to go to school here. They are the valedictorians and ROTC leaders in many schools.

It wasn't their decision to come to this country. They were kids when the decision was made, and their parents made the decision. The fundamental premise of the DREAM Act is that we should not punish kids for any wrongdoing by their parents. That isn't the American way. As Senator Marco Rubio has said, just because the parents got it wrong, we should not hold it against the kids.

As Justice Brennan said in Plyler v. Doe, ``legislation directing the onus of a parent's misconduct against his children does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.''

The DREAM Act isn't just the right thing to do, it is the right thing to do for America. It would help our economy by giving these talented immigrants a chance to become tomorrow's engineers, entrepreneurs, small business owners, teachers, and doctors.

The DREAM Act would strengthen America's national security by giving thousands of highly qualified, well-educated young people a chance to serve in America's Armed Forces. It is one of the greatest levelers in America. When we decided to integrate the Armed Forces under President Harry Truman, we set the stage for the civil rights revolution in this country. When men and women in the military were recognized for their inherent worth and commitment to this Nation rather than the color of their skin, it set a standard that now guides our Nation.

Almost every week I do my best to come to the floor to tell a story of one of these young people who would qualify for the DREAM Act. Today I will tell you about Al Okere. Al was born in Nigeria in 1990. In 1991, Al's father was killed by the Nigerian police after he wrote newspaper columns criticizing the Nigerian Government. The killing of Al's father was documented in the State Department's annual human rights report.

In 1995, Al's mother fled Nigeria and brought her 5-year-old boy Al to the United States. Al's mother, because of the murder or killing of her husband, applied for asylum, but her application was denied and she was deported in 2005, when Al was 15--after 10 years in the United States.

Today Al is 21 years of age. He lived in the State of Washington. His mother's sister, who is a U.S. citizen, is Al's legal guardian and has raised him since Al's mother was deported.

Al graduated from Rogers High School, near Tacoma, WA. He is currently attending Central Washington University, where he is an honors student with a 3.5 grade point average. He is an avid basketball and football player. He is an active volunteer in his community. For example, he recently headed up a fundraising drive for the Hope Children's Hospital.

I ask a lot of these ``dreamers'' to send me letters about their view of the United States and their hope for the future. He wrote this:

I have been in accelerated academic programs most of my educational life and hope to be a medical doctor some day, to contribute to the well-being of fellow humans. I hope to continue to emulate and walk in the great academic shoes of my late father, who earned a Ph.D degree from a university in Paris, France. My family and community support has been enormous and it gives me zeal to work hard in my studies, to be able to lend a hand to others in need, to realize a bright future.

Unfortunately, Al has been placed in deportation proceedings. Under our immigration law, his aunt, who is a U.S. citizen and his legal guardian, can't sponsor him for citizenship.

Al Okere grew up in America. He has never committed a crime. We have already invested in him. He has received his entire education, from kindergarten through college, in the United States. He didn't get any financial help in going to college from the Federal Government. He borrowed for that because he is undocumented. He had to find other sources and work his way through college. But he made it. He has a great potential to contribute to America. He doesn't remember a thing about Nigeria, and he doesn't speak their native language. Despite all that, the laws of America say that Al should be deported.

Here is what Al said about that possibility:

I don't remember anything about my mother's country of Nigeria. I cannot even speak the language. Every experience I have had in life that I can remember has been in the United States of America. Everyone I know and care about are all here, except for my mother, who was sadly removed and remains in hiding in fear of her life.

Fortunately, the Department of Homeland Security has decided to put Al's deportation on hold. I support this decision, but I know it is only temporary, it doesn't give Al permanent legal status of any kind, and there is still a risk of deportation in the future. The only way for Al to become a citizen is for the DREAM Act to become the law of the land.

Would America be a better Nation if Al Okere were deported? Of course not. Al is not an isolated example. There are thousands of others like him, who are only asking for a chance, asking for justice.

Plyler v. Doe gave Al Okere and other bright, accomplished, and ambitious young people like him the opportunity to obtain an education in America. The DREAM Act would give them a chance to fulfill their God-given potential and become our future doctors, engineers, teachers, and soldiers.

A couple of weeks ago--a lot of these DREAM Act students keep in touch with us--one student contacted our office saying he had given up. He lived in America all his life and had been educated here. He made his way through college and was looking forward to being an engineer. He waited 11 years for passage of the DREAM Act, and it hasn't happened. He decided he had no choice but to move to Canada. So now his talents will go to Canada. I have nothing against Canada; it is a great nation and neighbor. But why would we give up someone we have educated and trained to be a part of America?

On the 30th anniversary of Plyler v. Doe, I again ask my colleagues in both parties to support the DREAM Act. Let's give Al Okere and so many other young people like him a chance to contribute more fully to the only country they have called home. It is the right thing to do, and it will make America a stronger Nation.

I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.


Skip to top

Help us stay free for all your Fellow Americans

Just $5 from everyone reading this would do it.

Back to top