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.