Longform

Drive-by victim Karina Vargas is talking the walk

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In February 2012, Athanasiou filed Karina's application for a U visa. She also helped Karina's father change his status from legal permanent resident to U.S. citizen. That move, which took effect in October 2012, opened the door for Karina, as his child, to file to become a permanent resident more quickly than if her father was not a citizen. As a resident, Karina could get a Social Security number, work permission, a driver's license and possibly even Medicaid, the federal health-insurance program for low-income families and people with disabilities. Undocumented immigrants aren't eligible, and most permanent residents aren't eligible, either, Athanasiou says. But some are, if they've been in the U.S. long enough or meet other requirements.

But because Karina entered the country illegally, she would have had to leave the country and apply for her permanent residency at a U.S. consulate in Mexico. And since she's been in the United States unlawfully for more than a year, that application would probably have been rejected. So Athanasiou filed a petition asking that the teenager be granted an exceptionally rare permission known as "parole in place."

Parole in place grants immigrants who entered the country illegally the equivalent of a lawful entry. In other words, it allows them to be treated as if they had entered legally. It's most often extended to the undocumented spouses of military members, but it can also be used for "urgent humanitarian reasons." Athanasiou thought Karina might qualify. In her application, the lawyer cited the severity of the crime that left Karina paralyzed and the fact that Karina was brave enough to testify against the shooter, who had gang ties.

The local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Centennial granted Karina's request for parole in place. This past May, her U visa was also granted. (The U visa extends to Karina's mother, since Karina was a minor at the time of the crime.) And on October 30, Karina went to the Centennial office for an in-person interview related to her application to become a lawful permanent resident. The interview was relatively quick and easy, according to Karina and her lawyer, and Karina is now waiting for an answer.

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Karina hopes that permanent residency will take her one step closer to better health care — and one step closer to her goal of walking again. In the meantime, she's been able to patch together a handful of services with the help of people who, like the attorneys who prosecuted her shooter, heard her story and were inspired to help her.

One of those people is Nereyda Davila-Amaya, Athanasiou's paralegal. "When we first met her, she was very depressed," Davila-Amaya says of Karina. "She didn't really do her hair or her makeup. She would come here and just kind of lay on the table, like, put her head down." Much of the talking, Davila-Amaya says, fell to Karina's brother, Danny, who was her confidant long before she was shot and who became a sort of protector and communicator for her afterward.

"One day after talking to them, we were both just about to cry, just feeling like nobody was helping them," Athanasiou says. So they decided to organize a fundraiser to help pay for Karina's treatments, additional modifications to the family's home, and a wheelchair-accessible vehicle. The event, held in late September at the upscale Edge Bar inside the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Denver, ended up raising about $5,600 in cash and netting several offers from builders to make house modifications.

From the time they met her to the time of the fundraiser, Athanasiou and Davila-Amaya say, they saw Karina improve. One day, after not seeing her for a few months, they were surprised when she showed up at the office with her hair done and her makeup flawless. She was smiling. She was ready to speak for herself.

"Ever since that day, she's been the one that we communicate with," Davila-Amaya says.

Although Karina struggles to pinpoint exactly what caused her to change, she can identify the things that helped, including getting involved with the local advocacy organization Together Colorado. In August 2012, an acquaintance connected her with Rich McLean, a retired military-finance expert who works on health-care issues with Together Colorado. It was a few weeks after the Aurora theater shooting that left twelve people dead and dozens more injured, and McLean remembers that Karina called him out of the blue and introduced herself as the victim of a different shooting.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar