Catalina Cruz has recently moved into a new office in Corona, Queens.
Since she was elected in November to represent New York’s 39th District — consisting of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst in Queens — in the State Assembly, Ms. Cruz, 36, has been fully focused on her job. She and her team have sponsored nearly 400 pieces of legislation in her first six months.
But the road to where she is sitting today was a bumpy one. In 1992, at age 9, she and her single mother left Colombia for a better life in Queens. They lived through much adversity: a language barrier, stolen wages and no papers.
Ms. Cruz was undocumented for 10 years. Still, she was able to attend John Jay College of Criminal Justice and later the City University of New York School of Law. By the time she finished law school, Ms. Cruz had become a United States citizen. But she remained silent about her past.
When President Trump was elected in 2016, Ms. Cruz started sharing her story about living as an undocumented person. She said she was “terrified” for others who had not attained legal status.
“I lost my fear of who I was,” she said. “For a very long time, I never told anyone about my status. I never talked about having an emergency plan when I was 12, 13 years old because I didn’t know if my mother was going to come back home and what was I going to do with my sisters if my mother got picked up by immigration.”
Through it all, she never stopped considering herself a Dreamer.
Ms. Cruz is the first formerly undocumented immigrant who identifies as a Dreamer to be elected in New York State. From the day after her election, she and her team have been relentless, introducing or sponsored legislation on contraception, discrimination and gun safety, among other things.
To keep up with her community, Ms. Cruz hosts “coffee talks,” uses social media and attends cultural events. “I want to hear from folks who are going through the issues now,” she said.
She makes a distinction about who is a “constituent.” She considers them to be not just the people who voted for her, but also others living in her area. The distinction is because, she said, the majority of people in her district cannot vote because of their immigration status. Her advocacy work is deeply rooted in helping the immigrant community in her district.
She said she did not consider herself to be a politician. “Often I find that politicians speak a lot and don’t listen,” she said. “I like to call myself a public servant.”
Ms. Cruz’s dedication to improving the lives of immigrants has led her to become vocal about the Driver’s License Access and Privacy Act, which would grant licenses to undocumented people. Ms. Cruz describes this as “an upstate issue,” since downstate residents, mainly from New York City, can more readily take public transportation. She said undocumented workers in upstate New York and Long Island would have trouble making it to their jobs by car for fear they would be stopped.
Twelve states and the District of Columbia have already passed similar legislation. When asked why New York has not, Ms. Cruz responded bluntly, citing the lack of “political will.” She added that in the near future, the children of undocumented parents “that are going to be able to vote in the next election, they are going to vote you out.” She added, “These folks are going to remember who stood with their mom and dad and who didn’t.”
Looking at the work she has ahead — creating bills that would criminalize wage theft and exclude lobbyists who have a history of sexual misconduct — Ms. Cruz said she did not want to be pigeonholed into being just a defender of immigrants’ rights. It “downplays the strength of the knowledge of the work I have done and what I can give to our community,” she said.
At the moment, her new office is unfinished. Ms. Cruz showed the spaces that will soon become her own office and her chief of staff’s office. She is even designating a space for children to play. The office is on the ground floor, in the heart of Corona.
“When you are up on the sixth floor of a building, nobody knows you are there,” Ms. Cruz said.“You can do outreach all day, every day and it’s still not going to be enough,” unless “people can see you.”