Catalina Cruz on becoming the first former 'DREAMer' elected to NY State Assembly

The Assemblywoman recently sat down with Know Your Value to talk about her difficult past, recent accomplishments and very bright future.
New York Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz.
New York Assemblywoman Catalina Cruz.Courtesy of Catalina Cruz campaign.

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By Renee Morad

Long before Catalina Cruz was elected to serve residents of the New York State Assembly’s 39th District, she was a DREAMer, a young undocumented immigrant who was brought to America as child .

Cruz came to the U.S. from Colombia at the age of nine and for 10 years, lived in the shadows that often come with being undocumented.

Cruz recently sat down with Know Your Value’s Daniela Pierre-Bravo to talk about her difficult past, recent accomplishments and very bright future.

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“When my mom and I immigrated here, we always knew that we were out of status, we didn’t have papers as they said, and so it was always a constant conversation about the things we could do, couldn’t do, what we should stay away from,” Cruz said. “Don’t get in trouble in school, don’t get yourself arrested, don’t call attention to yourself, don’t tell anyone outside of the house that we don’t have papers. It was always like it was another member of the family. It was always there.”

For Cruz and her family, being undocumented also meant not being able to travel outside of the state and not being able to go see her grandmother when she passed away. It also meant lying to her friends about why she couldn’t get a driver’s license when she turned 16 and why she couldn’t get the same jobs that they had.

Cruz found inspiration to get through this difficult time by focusing her energy on caring for her sisters and brother. “When they were born, it almost became like I was the other parent,” Cruz said. “I would do anything and everything to make sure that they were OK. The idea that I could one day be separated from them or be deported, it would literally throw me into a panic attack,” she added. She explained that she often worried when her mom was a few minutes late coming home from her night job cleaning offices. This immediately sent Cruz into a panic, fearing that she might have been deported.

Catalina Cruz helps pack candy for the Halloween parade in Jackson Heights, Queens.Reynaldo Leanos Jr. / NBC News

Now that Cruz is a U.S. citizen and on the other side of the struggle, she realizes how lucky she is. “There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of young people in this country who are still living in that shadow that I lived,” she said. Now, she sees those moments of fear in other people and does what she can to help. Cruz, for example, helped to expand the DREAM Act to include tuition assistance to undocumented people.

Separately, as a survivor of child sexual abuse, Cruz believes that it is important that she is a voice for change among others who might be afraid to speak up. For example, she passed legislation called the Child Victims Act, which raises the age by which victims can pursue criminal charges to age 28 and allows survivors to file civil suits up to age 55. This is important since it often takes victims of child abuse time before they come to terms with what happened and find the courage to speak up.

Cruz said that her own mother’s story gives her a source of strength during times of self-doubt. “My mom is my angel,” Cruz said. Her mother had a solid career as a nurse back in Colombia, but left because of the violence from the drug wars. When Cruz questioned whether she should pursue running for Assemblywoman, her mom said, “We didn’t go through all we went through for you to decide to be mediocre,” Cruz recalled.

“If you’re going to run for office, you do it because the community needs someone like you,” Cruz said. “If you’re doing it as a career move, you have no business running for office. This job is not about you; it’s about the people you’re serving.”