From where Karina Sartiaguin Vargas is sitting, at a scenic overlook near the entrance of the expansive Bluff Lake Nature Center in northeast Denver, she can see the dirt path that she used to run every night before dinner. It's a warm day in November, and the nineteen-year-old is wearing a green skirt that stops above her knees, a yellow tank top, a fitted hoodie and sparkly black flats with no socks. Her long, dark hair is piled on top of her head in a tight bun, hiding the bleached streaks that match the stripe she dyed in her brother Danny's hair the day before. The sky is a nearly cloudless blue, and even though much of the vegetation is brown, the view is impressive.
Karina points her cell phone west at the peaks of the far-off mountains and takes a photo. Danny, who's just a year older, does the same. In the opposite direction, the siblings can see the top of the University of Colorado Hospital out in Aurora, where Karina and her family were told that she'd probably never run again.
Neither of them takes a photo of that.
In December 2010, Karina was shot outside Aurora Central High School. The bullet wasn't intended for her, but it hit her anyway, lodging in her back near her spinal cord and robbing her of the ability to walk. Because Karina was an undocumented immigrant, having crossed the border with her family when she was a baby, she had trouble getting medical care beyond what was necessary to save her life.
Charity programs have since helped fill in the gaps, but what Karina needs most is ongoing home health care and physical therapy, both of which are easier to come by if you're a U.S. citizen. Because she was the victim of an attempted murder, Karina was able to qualify for a special visa, called a U visa, that allows her to live in the United States. But the visa is temporary, and she's now working toward becoming a legal permanent resident, a status that may increase her access to health benefits. She hopes.
She is convinced that with the right treatment, she'll be able to walk again.
As Danny pushes Karina's wheelchair toward the nature center parking lot, a woman in turquoise running shorts and neon-pink sneakers huffs past them, her eyes focused on the path. "There would be Karina, running right next to her," Danny says.
"Yeah," Karina says in that teenage way that often means yeah, right. But when she says it, she smiles, and the dimples in her cheeks deepen. Even though she's struggled to complete high school since the shooting, even though most of her friends have moved on, and even though she sometimes gets depressed about her situation, Karina rarely shows it. She keeps her battle scars hidden and her chin up. The face she shows to the outside world is one of a courageous, beautiful, self-assured young woman.
"My life has changed," she often says, the tone of her voice more matter-of-fact than pity-me. "But you have to make the best of it, because you're still alive."
Karina's family is from the small Mexican state of Nayarit, a coastal area in the western part of the country, just north of Puerto Vallarta. Her father, Benito, first came to the United States in 1981 in search of a job. Her mother, Mina, followed fourteen years later with the couple's three children: nine-year-old Maria, two-year-old Danny, and Karina, who was just shy of a year old. They would have another daughter, Eli, in the U.S.
Mina says she brought the children here to learn English. Nayarit is a tourist destination, and it's easier to get a job in the resorts if you speak English, she explains. Her plan was to stay just long enough for the kids to pick up the language and then return to Mexico, as her husband often did. But once the children started school, Mina decided that it'd be unfair to take them away from the educational opportunities they were getting in the U.S. With that decision, Karina's family joined the 11 million undocumented immigrants estimated to be living in the United States today.
Her father, however, was not undocumented. In 1986, he was among the nearly three million immigrants granted temporary legal status thanks to a bill passed by President Ronald Reagan and Congress that aimed to stop illegal immigration. Later, Karina's father got his green card, which granted him permanent residency but not citizenship. His residency didn't immediately extend to his family, however, and cases such as theirs can take decades to resolve. At the time Karina was shot, their case was still pending.