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By the Numbers: Undocumented immigrants in Lowcountry schools

WCIV

South Carolina’s population is changing. According to the American Immigration Council’s 2013 study, roughly 1 in 15 people in the Palmetto State are Latino or Asian.

The impacts of South Carolina’s changing dynamics are being felt everywhere, from state budgets to schools.

Back in May, the Lowcountry was introduced to Stall High School valedictorian, Alejandra Gonzalez. Under that crisp cap and gown, she had a secret, one she tried to hide for years.

"I am an undocumented immigrant," Gonzalez said, “I wasn't born here. I was born in Mexico."

The 18 year-old National Honor Society member, like other rising seniors, started think about college. Little did she know, Federal funding and loans weren’t available to undocumented immigrants.

“There were some moments where I used to break down," she said. “I’m not able to further my education even though I always planned to. I didn’t know I wasn’t eligible for state or federal aid, so going to college, that's how you get by -- with student loans.”

Gonzalez ended up getting a scholarship and will attend Wake Forest in the fall.

But the story prompted dozens of comments both praising her accomplishments and criticizing school districts for allowing non-American citizens free education, quite possibly at tax payer expense.

ABC News 4 checked with local leaders to find out how many undocumented students are in Lowcountry classrooms, and the challenges that presents.

District leaders from Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester District Two responded to our inquiry saying that federal regulations actually prohibit school districts from keeping that kind of information.

However, Pew Research data shows in 2014, nearly three quarters of a million students enrolled in grades K-12 in the United States were unauthorized Immigrants. A closer look at the numbers shows almost 4 million others were the children of undocumented immigrants.

750-thousand sounds like a lot, but that's actually less than 2 percent of all students enrolled in schools around the country.

The debate over undocumented students and who is paying for their education is a concern and issue Dorchester District Two Superintendent Joe Pye says he hears monthly -- and one he says he takes seriously.

"Our older citizens, they are really taking it to heart,” Pye said. “(They feel) people are on a free ride. they are presenting danger to our schools, (undocumented immigrants) are not paying for what (citizens) are paying for out of their taxes for their children. So they call. That is where they are coming from, and I understand that. But it’s hard for them to understand why I don’t have a wall built up around DD2.”

Pye says that teachers and administrators are not allowed to ask students if they are citizens, though he did admit that if there are disciplinary actions and it is discovered a student is an undocumented immigrant, it must be reported. Pye said his teachers and staff members follow federal regulations "to the T."

District officials admit undocumented immigrants are on the roll call. As for how much they are costing Lowcountry taxpayers, district officials could only provide the average cost of educating any given student, citizen or not.

In Dorchester District Two, the cost per student per year is $7,413. Charleston County’s projected cost per student for the upcoming year is $10,623 Berkeley county leaders tell us one year of school is about $7,758 per pupil.

Meanwhile, the American Immigration Council argues undocumented immigrants are not a total drain on taxpayers, saying they paid nearly $35 million in taxes in 2010.

That organization estimates if unauthorized immigrants were removed from South Carolina, the state would lose out on more than $1.8 billion dollars in economic activity.

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