AIKEN - Griselda Lopez, 15, the honor student at Silver Bluff High School who faces deportation to Mexico, has known she was an illegal immigrant since she was in elementary school, but she said she kept her status a secret for as long as she could.
"I always knew what was going on, but I couldn't tell anyone," she said in an interview last week. "It is not that I am ashamed, but I don't want people to look at me as a lawbreaker."
Griselda's hopes of staying in the only country she's known as home hinge on stalled legislation in Congress and a long-shot appeal for asylum that is rarely granted to Mexican nationals.
She won a two-month reprieve last week from immediate deportation to Mexico when an immigration judge granted her until May 27 to file a request for asylum.
Griselda isn't the only pupil keeping her immigration status a secret. The Urban Institute, a union-funded policy think tank in Washington, estimates that 1.6 million undocumented illegal immigrants are in K-12 school systems in the United States.
Cori Alston, a language consultant for the South Carolina Department of Education who specializes in setting up courses for pupils who don't speak English, said that to get into school, pupils must present a birth certificate, have all immunization shots, and show proof that they live within the school district. School officials do not ask for citizenship documents, she said, because it is illegal to do so.
"We are seeing more students who speak languages other than English in schools because I think more immigrants are settling down in areas instead of moving around with crop production, as they have in the past," she said.
Using formulas to estimate the number of undocumented students, Jeff Passel, a demographer with the Urban Institute, said there could be as many as 150 pupils in Aiken County with cases similar to Griselda's.
In the smaller surrounding counties, the estimates show there could be as many as 40 undocumented pupils in Edgefield County and about 20 without a visa or citizenship papers in Allendale County.
But local Hispanic leaders say these estimates fall far short. Given the high and underestimated number of undocumented immigrants in the Aiken-Augusta area and the increasing permanence of their presence, the number of pupils without legal standing is probably much higher than the Urban Institute estimate, they say.
"In Aiken, I think there are far more than 150 illegal students because of the undocumented population in the area," said Julio Romero, an advocate for local Hispanics. "I don't think it is fair for kids to be penalized for something not in their control, and you can't blame their parents for wanting to leave their Third World country, but they are here."
Aiken County school officials disputed the Urban Institute's estimate and said they think Griselda's situation is unusual for the county.
"I've not seen anything to indicate that is a reliable statistic," said Frank Roberson, Aiken County's associate superintendent for instruction. "We don't have a problem, and these students are just like any others. So we have no reason to take any action."
David Mathis, the assistant superintendent for instruction for Edgefield County, agreed.
"I would be blown away to find anything close to that in Edgefield," he said. "We have a relatively small population of English-as-a-second-language kids in our district, so that wouldn't make much sense."
But Mr. Romero said the presence of illegal immigrants and their children in the United States needs to be addressed, particularly in light of the immigration crackdown that has followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"We have to adhere to the laws, but there are situations like Griselda's that needed to be treated with morality and ethics."
Reach Peter G. Gilchrist at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.