Alejandra Lamas on how surviving the Aurora theater shooting helped her get documented

At first, Alejandra Cardona Lamas couldn't have imagined that a single good thing would come out of July 20, 2012.

She was among the hundreds of fans gathered for the midnight screening of The Dark Night Rises at the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora. And she was there for the mass shooting that killed twelve innocent people, including her friend A.J. Boik.

Lamas was among the seventy people shot and wounded.

Lamas was eighteen, a recent, high-achieving graduate of Gateway High School in Aurora. Following the shooting, laid up in bed for weeks, she was visited by a long line of family and friends. She ate, watched TV and fielded constant inquiries from the local and national media. Her anxiety was constant, too: Lamas feared her status as an undocumented immigrant would be revealed amid the media coverage. She and her family had been traumatized. Now they could be deported.

"It was unsure a lot of the time," she says. "It was overwhelming, the amount of interest. Did I put us at risk by talking to these reporters? Then other things started happening. Funerals. I realized it was good for me to find something healthy to keep my mind elsewhere."

Within a month, Lamas was eager to get back to life -- to the future that awaited at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where she had enrolled for fall 2012. She had accelerated her physical therapy and ditched her crutches, hoping to be accepted as a normal student. The first in her family to go to college, she felt ready -- prepared to face the course load as well as the insurmountably high tuition rates demanded of undocumented students, which were nearly three times that paid by Colorado residents.

"I knew that my options were really limited, but I had a determination to go to school, regardless of what that would mean for me financially in the future," Lamas says. "I had already paid a dorm deposit, a book bill. I was going to leave my family to come to school. I didn't have a concrete plan, but I knew that this was what I wanted to do, even if I'd be paying back those loans for a long time."

Before the shooting, Lamas had heard about a new law signed by President Barack Obama, granting deferred action status to young people who, like Lamas, had entered the United States illegally as children and gone on to earn high school diplomas or GEDs. Passed in June 2012, the bill was intended to allow undocumented youth to come out of hiding -- for a period of two years.

"My passion was sparked when deferred action was put it into place under Obama," Lamas says. "I remember thinking once, before everything happened, 'There is a chance for me to go to school.' But I still didn't know: What about those two years? Even if you get that status, are you going to renew? What if the next president is just like, 'No, we're not doing that.' I find this to be important -- like, why are you teasing? You say, 'You can reach your dreams but then we're going to take it away half way through your college career?'"

Lamas began making calls to lawyers and immigrant-rights groups she hoped she could trust with her story. Eventually, she found a knowledgeable and sympathetic advocate at Padres Unidos, a Denver-based advocacy group. In addition to her eligibility for deferred action, Lamas learned that she and her family qualified for the U Visa, a rare class of visas granted to victims of violence perpetuated by American citizens.

"What I perceived of the U Visa was that it was solely for victims of domestic violence," Lamas says. "I had seen friends of my family go through that. I thought domestic violence was its only use."

Lamas and her mother, father and younger sister began the process of applying for the special visa, which grants work eligibility for four years and opens a pathway to American citizenship. In December 2013, Lamas became the last member of her family to receive the visa.

"There was times I thought, 'I shouldn't be taking advantage of this. I shouldn't be seeing an opportunity in something so tragic,'" she says. "But then it became something so great. For my parents who have been living in the U.S. undocumented for twenty years, it was a huge weight off their shoulders. It definitely changed their perception of life and working. It's hard to explain what a huge difference it has made in our lives."

Continue for more of our interview with Alejandra Cardona. Last year, Lamas and her parents obtained their first Social Security cards -- and their first driver's licenses.

"When I go out now, people ask me, 'Can I see your ID?' I'm like, 'Why, yes, you can!'" she says, laughing. "It feels a lot better. When you don't have those things, you miss out on so many things in life, so many transitions. People don't understand: No, I can't go to an R-rated movie, or travel within the United States, because I don't have an ID. I remember when I was in high school, when I was sixteen, my parents had to tell me, 'No, you can't get a job' -- because it was too much of a risk. It's really a strain to live under that worry that anything could happen."

Now twenty, Lamas is currently in her second year at CSU, majoring in social work and contemplating a double major in criminal justice. Because she and her parents are not yet citizens of the United States, she's ineligible for federal student aid. But her total college bill will be significantly lower following the passage of the ASSET Bill, which Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law in April 2013, on its seventh appearance before the Colorado State legislature. The bill allows undocumented youth with high-school diplomas or GEDs to apply for in-state tuition to Colorado institutions of higher learning. Lamas also receives support from the Denver-based PUKSTA Foundation, which grants financial aid to promising young people, many of them first-generation college students.

Lamas is among the nine young people whose stories compose the heart of Dreaming Sin Fronteras, an original play directed by Jose Antonio Mercado, opening March 21 at North High School. A dramatized series of monologues based on real-life narratives, Dreaming Sin Fronteras explores the immigration issue primarily from the point of view of young, could-be citizens like Lamas, whose lives are directly impacted by legislative action -- and inaction -- on immigration reform.

Dreaming Sin Fronteras includes an original song inspired by Lamas, written by Raul Pacheco of Ozomatli and Shawn King of DeVotchKa, the show's co-musical directors. The production marks Mercado's return to North High School; ten years ago, as a teacher there, he directed Zoot Suit Riots, the focus of a 2004 cover story.

In this week's cover story, "Zoot Suit Riots Changed the Future for Jose Mercado's Students -- and Their Teacher," Laura Bond revisits many of the people involved in that show and reveals how it set the stage for a very unexpected second act.

Now Lamas is starting her own second act.

More than a year and a half after the shooting, Lamas is mostly recovered from her physical injuries. If she spends time thinking about what happened, or what might have happened, that night in Aurora, she doesn't let on. She's got too many other things to think about.

"I've been more about embracing what came of this tragedy happening to me, how it made me grow as a person, what kind of perspective I now have on my life," she says. "If anything in me has changed after going through that and then obtaining legal status, I wonder what I can do to help people who are in those same shoes that I was -- coming out of high school, coming into college, not really knowing what was going to happen.

"Before all this happened, I was so caught up in being ashamed of being an immigrant," she adds. "I didn't really realize there's an opportunity to empower myself. Even though I don't live through the privilege of the American way of life and all its advantages, I'm privileged to know diversity and different ways of life, different populations of people, and to see that even though we live in this society together, we have different cultural barriers. It's a huge privilege to see them through both eyes. Before my life changed, I didn't see so much."

More from our Immigration archive: "Photos: Rally for Javier Gallegos Rosales, facing deportation despite being in U.S. since age nine."

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond