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Catalina Cruz Dreams Big in Queens
Cruz wants to make New York State a progressive model for the rest of the country when it comes to immigrants’ rights. But there’s a catch: Many of the people she’s speaking to can’t vote.
The streets of Jackson Heights, Queens, bustle with residents wearing kurtas, shalwar kameez, headscarves, and abayas. Signs are in multiple languages; restaurants advertise cuisines from around the world. In the middle sits New York State Assembly candidate Catalina Cruz’s campaign office, in a building that also houses immigration lawyers and accountants, a World Travel Service, and a Business Center for New Americans. Her staff and volunteers are nearly all young women of color.
It’s a fitting setting for Cruz, whose pitch to voters is her experience standing up for immigrants. “You can say, ‘I’m going to fight against Trump,’” she tells me, “but unless you’ve actually taken steps to fight against discriminatory practices targeting immigrants, you’re not going to know how to do that. And that’s something I’ve done.”
Cruz herself grew up undocumented in Queens and obtained legal status in 2009 after marrying her American high-school sweetheart and receiving pro bono help with her citizenship application. She is acutely aware that these were lucky circumstances not available to all: As one of this country’s 3.6 million Dreamers and the first to run for office in New York State, she is running for an Assembly seat in Queens District 39, which covers parts of Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. If she wins, she will be only the third Dreamer in the country to hold office.
At a July breakfast for her at The Wing, a women-only networking space, Cruz introduced three high-school girls from Queens, all immigrants or children of immigrants, who were volunteering on her campaign. Nervously clutching index cards with handwritten notes, each spoke for a minute or two about how inspiring it was to work for Cruz. The girls’ speeches were obviously stage-managed, but sincere. “I never met a more genuine person than Catalina,” one high school junior shyly offered. She was rewarded with an approving grin from Cruz, who watched intently as each girl spoke. When a volunteer spoke briefly about the importance of raising money for the campaign, Cruz was quick to interject: the money, she said, was important for “our community,” not for “‘my’ campaign.”
Cruz’s identity as a Dreamer and her focus on immigrants’ rights is a big deal, especially to voters in her heavily Democratic district, where passage of the Dream Act and immigrant defense are pressing concerns. Nearly half of all Queens residents and 71 percent of people living in Elmhurst are immigrants, and around 246,000 of New York City’s 643,000 illegal immigrants live in Queens. It’s no surprise, then, that Cruz’s opponents in the race are also immigrants or children of immigrants: Yonel Letellier Sosa, who came to New York City from the Dominican Republic when he was 1 year old, and incumbent Aridia “Ari” Espinal, whose parents are Dominican, and who has held the seat since a special election in April.
The irony of Cruz’s campaign, with its heavy emphasis on defending the rights of the undocumented, is that Dreamers—like all noncitizen immigrants—can’t vote. Like Cruz herself, some may eventually become US citizens. But others will continue to live in fear and uncertainty, under constant threat of deportation.
Cruz, who has voted consistently since 2012, says she wants to represent them all. “Immigration is huge [in my district] because most of the people live in mixed-status families, where someone might be undocumented, another person might be a citizen,” Cruz says. “We need to make sure that we have protections for all of them, as well as programs to help them thrive.” Her campaign manager, she notes, is also a Dreamer.
Of course, if she wins, there’s a limit to what she can do about federal immigration law as an elected official in New York State. But she is determined to make New York State a progressive model for the rest of the country, especially when it comes to immigrants’ rights.
Raised by a single mother, Cruz came to the United States from Colombia in 1992, when she was 9. During the family’s first few years in New York, her mother handed out restaurant fliers for $40 a day on the corner of 82nd and Roosevelt Ave. The family lived in the shadows; even the man who is now Cruz’s husband didn’t know the full story of her immigration status at first. “For a long time, we were hiding who we were,” she says. Cruz has lived or worked in Queens neighborhoods in or near District 39 for her entire adult life.
Cruz got her start in New York politics by interning for Governor Andrew Cuomo, who was then New York’s attorney general. A graduate of CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice and CUNY Law School, Cruz has used her legal education to help her fellow immigrants: She served on former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s immigration committee, where she helped write legislation to keep ICE out of Rikers.
She also helped to crack down on fraudulent notarios—fake lawyers who scam immigrants—and helped implement a legal services initiative (a public-private partnership between the New York City Council and several charitable organizations) to assist unaccompanied minors after children first began arriving in the United States from Central America in October 2013. Having grown up worrying constantly about what might happen to her family if they got caught up in the US criminal-justice system, she values the power and perspective she has gained from studying that system.
Before running for office, she was chief of staff to Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the former chair of the New York City Council’s finance committee and the first woman, first person of color, and youngest person to hold that position. Cruz decided to run for office after Ferreras-Copeland’s 2017 resignation led to an open Assembly seat. “It was not a road I was expecting,” she told The Cut, “but these seats rarely open, so I kind of did a gut check.” At her mother’s urging, she threw her hat into the ring.
Confident, open, and warm, with a winning smile—“I’m a hugger,” she says, when I go in for a handshake—Cruz is a natural in front of an audience. At the Wing breakfast in July, a 30-something attendee asked what advice the candidate would give to her 25-year-old self. “Hmm,” replied Cruz, thinking aloud. “What was I doing at 25?”
After a pause, she answered: “I would forgive myself. I felt a lot of guilt and shame for having citizenship when others in my community didn’t. I would tell my story sooner; I think I have a responsibility to tell it.” Grinning, she continued: “Also, I’d say, ‘Stop dyeing your hair and get rid of the bangs!’” Everyone laughed.
Cruz has also made an impression on a number of her constituents. Karen Wellington, a 63-year-old African-American woman who has lived in Cruz’s district since 2003, described Cruz as “very involved” in the community. Wellington, a retired New York City public high school teacher, listed housing, health care, and immigration as the district’s top concerns. Seniors, she said, are especially easy targets for unscrupulous landlords.
“Even though I’m not an immigrant and many of my friends aren’t,” said Wellington, “we all know people who are immigrants because we work and live with them every day. We’re very concerned about what’s happening with the Trump administration. Catalina is very concerned also. We know she would work in the state government to protect their rights.”
Wellington was blunt about what she sees as Cruz’s qualifications for the job. “Everybody knows that our state government leaves something to be desired, to put it nicely,” she said. “I think Catalina’s a very strong person and can handle the situations that she would be dealing with in Albany and trying to get the laws passed that would help our community.”
Veronica Piedra Leon, former chief of staff to NYC Councilman Carlos Menchaca, identifies with Cruz’s immigrant experience: She herself moved from Ecuador when she was a teen. She’s now a permanent resident and expecting her second child; Piedra Leon hopes to be a citizen one day, not least of all because she can’t vote until she is.
Being a Dreamer, she said, allows you to “see issues in a different light.” Somebody “who has lived through what you lived through, who understands what it’s like to be living in the shadows, who understands what it’s like to have a parent who doesn’t speak English, who you need to be the translator for…somebody who understands what true advocacy is. That makes a difference, and that’s what I see in Catalina.”
Cruz makes sure to connect the big issues in her district—immigration, affordable housing, fixing the dysfunctional buses and subways, and increasing access to education and health care—to her own experiences. “I’m a renter myself,” she says, “so I understand that fear, that every time your lease is renewed…if my landlord wants to charge [higher] rent, he could.” She describes the Metropolitan Transit Authority as “a massive system that’s too big to function and constantly fails us…. In our community, we have a lot of hourly workers whose jobs depend on getting to work on time, and this is not occurring.”
She says she’d like to see a statewide single-payer health-care system. Cruz is also a staunch advocate of women’s reproductive freedom and believes it’s critical to support health-care organizations that women rely on, such as Planned Parenthood, because “I remember when I was undocumented, having to access places like Planned Parenthood so I could actually get care because I couldn’t get it anywhere else.”
As a Dreamer from Queens, her campaign is a “middle finger” to the Queens-born US president. But she cautions against mistaking a symptom for its cause. “We need to understand that it’s not just Trump. It’s an entire system that now feels empowered because of him being in front of it,” she says.
Notably—and despite the fact that the incumbent, Ari Espinal, was essentially installed by her former boss, Francisco Moya, in a special election after Moya was elected to the New York City Council—Cruz does not see herself as an insurgent candidate. “The first thought in my head…it’s always, ‘I’m running for our community, I’m running for change for our people,’ not, ‘I’m going to go and destroy the machine,” she says.
In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Cruz fitting in among the state’s political class: She’s well-connected, poised, savvy, and on cordial terms with many New York State elected officials. Perhaps anticipating that they may cross paths again, she is markedly restrained when asked to compare herself with her opponents: “One of the things that I’m very proud of is I don’t do negative. I like to spend the least amount of time talking about [my opponents] and their plans.”
She may not want to smash the machine, but she does seem to want to make it better and stronger, especially when it comes to her highest priority: protecting immigrants.
“The beauty about going through the immigration process is that you learn what it’s like not to have a voice,” said Veronica Piedra Leon. “You understand that those who do have the voice are the ones that need to be in power, to cast a vote and to make a difference, based on our experiences. Piedra Leon is trying to teach her 7-year-old niece, who was born in the United States, “the value of voting and showing up and supporting candidates like Catalina, who understands what we have gone through.” Doing so makes her feel as if she is “a part of the process, even if I cannot vote.”
It’s a sentiment Cruz often invokes. At the end of the day, she tells me, “I may be the first, but I have a responsibility to make sure that I’m not the last, to open doors for young women, to open doors for undocumented folks to have a voice.”