Aug. 31, 2018 By Tara Law (Updated Sep. 4)
Jackson Heights resident and attorney Catalina Cruz, who spent her childhood in Queens as an undocumented immigrant and later gained citizenship, is now vying for public office.
Cruz, 35, is running to represent the 39th Assembly District, made up of Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona, and is up against incumbent Aridia Espinal in the upcoming Democratic primary on Sept. 13.
Cruz says area voters heading to the polls in two weeks time will recognize that the challenges she has faced are the same as those of her potential constituents.
Her professional background, she adds, also proves that she’s able to govern. She has worked as chief of staff to Council Member Julissa Ferraras, and was also a member of the governor’s Exploited Workers Task Force.
But most crucially, Cruz believes that constituents can trust her to look out for their interests because she doesn’t take corporate donations.
“My only answer is to the people,” Cruz said. “I don’t owe anything to anyone other than the voters.”
In a meeting with the Queens Post, Cruz broke down the many challenges District 39 residents currently face, including combating the federal government’s efforts to clamp down on undocumented immigrants, searching for truly affordable housing, and dealing with an unreliable subway.
On immigration, for instance, her platform includes securing $100 million to fund five years of legal services, and providing undocumented immigrants with the ability to get a driver’s license. Her stance, she says, is a must given the federal administration’s hostile policies against immigrants.
She also backs the passage of the New York State Liberty Act, which would assure undocumented immigrants gain access to an array of legal services, and the state Dream Act, which would give undocumented New Yorkers access to state college financial aid.
Cruz says her first-hand experience with the immigration system, where she lived in fear of her status being known, and watched as her mother, a trained nurse, being forced to work multiple menial jobs, allows her to see what types of resources are most needed for many District 39 residents.
“[My mother] would tell us not to get in trouble in school, don’t call attention to yourself, no getting arrested— it was just something we always knew,” Cruz said.
As for housing affordability, Cruz said she wants to make sure residents, including seniors, middle and low-income residents, can afford to stay in the district they’ve long considered home or are just settling into.
She is critical of the city’s affordable housing policy, as the income ranges needed to qualify for apartments, based on the Area Median Income, are too high.
“The people who can meet that demand for rent are not going to be the people here, who need it,” Cruz said. “It’s going to be people from outside of the community who can afford it. It’s going to meet the overall city demand, but not the one for the particular community.”
Cruz would back legislation that could help keep rents affordable, like ending a provision that allows landlords to increase rent after making major capital improvements, or tax breaks for low income seniors.
In addition, she supports efforts to help undocumented persons, who have fewer housing options and economic mobility than citizens, live in the district. The Department of Buildings, she says, should relax restrictions for illegally subdivided housing, as many undocumented persons are already living in such homes within the district. The poorest will likely continue to live in subdivided housing anyway, a notion that the city should realize.
“I would get behind any piece of legislation that would make it more affordable for the people who want to live here,” Cruz said.
As for the subway system, Cruz says New York State should give control of New York City Transit back to the City. The MTA should then create an independent supervisory body to oversee the transit system, and finally refinance the authority’s debt to cut costs.
“If I can refinance my student loans, why can’t you refinance the debt of the MTA?” she said.
Cruz said her campaign platform was created after conducting frequent meetings with community groups and residents over coffee to discuss these and other concerns.
While the Queens Democratic Party backs Espinal, she says the endorsement means little compared to what the voters will ultimately do at the polls.
“At the end of the day, the only people who get to choose are the voters, and they love the fact that I’m running like this,” said Cruz. “Independent from corporate money, independent from party leaders, independent from anything but the people.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that she became a citizen through the Dream Act. Ms. Cruz won a Green Card as a young adult and later became a citizen, but did not benefit from DACA.