From Dreamer to candidate: Cruz tells her story
by Benjamin Fang
Jul 11, 2018 | 3903 views | 0 0 comments | 63 63 recommendations | email to a friend | print
There wasn’t a singular moment when Queens Assembly candidate Catalina Cruz suddenly realized that she was undocumented.

She always knew that she and her single mother, who hopped on a plane from Colombia when Cruz was just 9 years old, had overstayed their visas.

“There was always this thing at home about being very careful not to get in trouble with the police, don’t get in trouble in school, don’t draw attention to yourself,” she said. “Those are very clear things.”

It wasn’t until Cruz was applying to colleges in New York when she understood the limitations of not having papers. Though she got into state schools like SUNY Albany, her family had no way of paying for it.

That’s how she ended up at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where Cruz studied forensic psychology because she wanted to go into law enforcement. She grew up watching the NBC crime drama “Profiler,” which convinced her to be a cop.

“It was the corniest, most horrible imagery of policing, but I used to love it and I fell in love with the idea of it,” Cruz said. “I was like, ‘I’m totally going to become a profiler one day in the FBI.’ Here I am with no papers, go figure.”

Cruz, who became a citizen in 2009, is the first Dreamer to run for office in New York, and the third in the entire country. She’s running against incumbent Assemblywoman Ari Espinal, who was elected in the April 24 special election, and Yonel Letellier Sosa, former chief of staff to State Senator Jose Peralta, to represent the 39th Assembly District.

One of the most diverse districts in the city, if not the country, it encompasses Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Corona.

Cruz said after she arrived from Colombia, she grew up “all over Queens.” She went to middle school in Ozone Park, and then high school in Flushing.

“One of the things that happens when you are an immigrant is, you try to find the place with the cheapest rent,” she said. “We moved around a lot.”

The constant moving made Cruz feel like she couldn’t get too close with anyone or any community. Given her undocumented status at the time, she kept a “wall” between herself and her neighbors.

But after she attained citizenship and started working, Cruz found a home in Jackson Heights, a community where she felt she could finally “put roots in.” She said it reminded her of her hometown in Colombia, where she could walk down the main avenue and say hello to everyone.

“If your kid went outside to play, someone would keep an eye. Everyone cared about what’s happening in the community,” she said. “This reminds me of that feeling, that I can walk anywhere and know everyone.”

In her last year at John Jay, Cruz began looking closely at going to law school. No longer pursuing a career in law enforcement, she wanted to use the law to help people who have gone through similar situations as her family.

After taking a year off, she attended CUNY Law School, an experience she described as “life changing.” Cruz became a housing attorney representing rent-stabilized tenants.

But she then took a turn and jumped into government, hoping to make a run for office one day.

Cruz still remembers the day when she was persuaded to go this route. She was volunteering for the Safe Passage Project, a nonprofit that addresses the legal needs of indigent immigrant youth in New York.

Sitting next to Caesar Vargas, the state’s first undocumented attorney, Cruz asked for advice about her next steps. At that point, Cruz was a counsel for the state Department of Labor’s immigration affairs division.

She could continue working at the state level, where she got her start as an intern for then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. Or she could work for newly-elected Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Latina speaker of the City Council.

Cruz chose the latter.

As counsel to the Council’s Immigration Committee, Cruz worked on initiatives including kicking Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) out of Rikers Island, writing legislation cracking down on “notario fraudsters” and implementing the city’s municipal identification program, IDNYC.

“So Caesar was right,” she said. “That was the place to see what transparent, courageous government looks like.”

Her most recent job was chief of staff to former Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, who left after two terms in office to spend more time with family in Maryland. Ferreras-Copeland’s exit left a vacancy that was filled by Francisco Moya, who held the 39th District’s Assembly seat for seven years.

But it wasn’t just the open spot that convinced Cruz to make the leap from staffer to elected official. After Donald Trump’s election, she started to think about the implications of his presidency, especially for immigrants.

“Trump had been elected and I had been trying to figure out what else I could do,” she said, “because I always felt a sense of guilt that I had been undocumented for so long and that I had papers now.”

“It was always like I was trying to constantly find the next thing I could do to kind of give back,” she added. “What is the next thing? It felt like this was it.”

Cruz said she could not let this opportunity to serve pass.

“Even if I struggled the way that I did,” she added, “there’s somebody out there struggling just as much, or still in the shadows and not being able to fight.”

If there’s any district where Cruz could be a voice for the voiceless, it’s this one. According to the candidate, nearly 40 percent of constituents are undocumented, and another 20 percent have legal status but cannot vote.

Within that small pot of voters, Cruz said even fewer turn out to cast their ballot. In the April 24 special election, for which Espinal was the only candidate, only 778 residents voted, a number Cruz called “embarrassing.”

“I think the turnout has a lot to do with whether we trust who’s running and believe who’s running,” she said. “This is the type of community where people routinely feel like nobody in places of power cares enough to listen to what I have to say. I’m trying to change that.”

“We’re a country where democracy should be working, and isn’t always,” she added. “Let’s motivate people. Let’s give them something to believe in.”

If elected, Cruz said she will focus on local issues like street safety, protecting immigrants and, of course, fixing the MTA. She wants legislation to harshen penalties for hit-and-run drivers, strengthen rent regulations and remove the Major Capital Improvements (MCI) program.

On immigration, Cruz wants to make New York a “true sanctuary state,” which includes allowing undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses, more funding for ESOL classes and not allowing state agencies to share information with the federal government.

With the MTA, the Assembly hopeful proposes breaking up the agency into different pieces, and give the city the ability to manage the subway and trains.

“The alleged solutions we’ve had so far haven’t worked,” she said. “And you just continue to get a train system where the price increases every year and can’t get us to work on time.”

Cruz has been on the campaign trail for several months, and as a first-time candidate, the experience has been somewhat eye-opening. She said when she used to be chief of staff for Ferreras-Copeland, she managed the councilwoman’s schedule.

Now, Cruz’s schedule is controlled by her staff.

“You go from the person managing everything to the person who gets told how everything needs to be done,” she said. “People will dictate where you show up, how long you’ve to be there.”

Cruz also learned from speaking to voters at their doors and on the phone that many residents don’t trust government officials anymore. The lesson she gleaned from her experience was to not make promises you can’t keep.

“Don’t make any promises because that is how you lose people,” she said. “That’s been very humbling, understanding why people no longer trust government, no longer come out and vote.”

She hopes her campaign, and her personal story, can fill that trust deficit among constituents.

“Honestly, in a community where a lot of us are immigrants, I firmly believe a story like mine can motivate people to come out to vote,” she said.

Cruz has still faced her own set of challenges. A tough one to overcome initially was “getting over the idea” of constantly telling her story of being undocumented. She gets especially emotional when her mother’s around, knowing the sacrifices she has made.

“There are times when I’m talking about growing up undocumented and her picking cans,” she said. “It’s a part of my speech, but without fail, my voice will crack.”

Another challenge is fundraising. Though Cruz said she has received many small donations from community members, she has not kept up with Espinal, whom is backed by county officials.

But she remains optimistic that her insurgent campaign can win. After all, this central Queens district is where politicians like Daniel Dromm and Ferreras-Copeland defied the odds and defeated county-backed candidates.

It’s also a district that overwhelmingly supported Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now the Democratic nominee for Congress, over longtime incumbent Joe Crowley, who heads the Queens Democratic Party.

“We’re literally in the heartland of the insurgency of politics,” Cruz said. “The folks here are very active in all of that.”

From now until the primary on September 13, Cruz will focus on getting on the ballot, fundraising and getting more people to come out to vote.

But she also wants to ensure every single person in the community, not just the 40 percent of eligible voters, knows that her campaign is for them.

“I’m running for every single person, regardless of status, regardless of language, gender, anything else other than the fact that they’re members of our community,” Cruz said, “and they deserve someone who has the experience, the respect for them and who loves the community.”
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