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

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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.

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Laura Bond
Contact: Laura Bond