The First Dreamer to Run for Office in New York Has a Message for Donald Trump

So does New American Leaders, the group empowering Catalina Cruz and immigrant candidates across the country.

CatalinaCruzNY/YouTube

It’s incredibly hot on this August morning in Jackson Heights, Queens, but here’s Catalina Cruz in her element.

“Our community deserves to stay in our barrios, and we’re gonna make sure that happens,” she says, standing before roughly a dozen supporters, across the street from a vacant, fenced-off lot that will soon be turned into a gleaming new housing development at the intersection of 82nd and Baxter. Her long, dark hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail, accenting modest pearl earrings that match the cream pumps she will take off just as soon as the half-hour press conference is over, when a young campaign volunteer hands her a plastic bag filled with the moment’s salvation: a pair of black flip-flops.

She’s earnest while talking to residents, promising that, if elected to New York’s 39th State Assembly seat, she will start state-funded right to counsel for tenants who find themselves in housing court. She gets nods and applause when she talks about passing legislation to end the common practice of landlords charging residents hefty rent increases for relatively common building repairs. Just as she’s about to introduce city councilman and housing rights advocate Mark Levine, who is there to announce his endorsement, Cruz says loud and clear: Tenants “deserve funding for community organizations to organize tenants to be able to fight back.”

Cruz is part of this year’s wave of first-time candidates for public office, and, like many of them, the 35-year-old probably would never have run for office if President Donald Trump hadn’t been elected. A former housing attorney who has long worked for city and state government, Cruz is a woman of color in an era when identity has become a rallying cry and virtually every elected office stands to be upended by a long list of “firsts”—women, black women, transgender black women, black men, native women, lesbians, and immigrants. And Cruz is another important first: the first Dreamer to run for public office in New York state. If elected, she’d be one of only a handful of Dreamers in elected office across the country.

Even still, the message she is trying to drive home to folks in Queens is, on its face, simple: She’s just like them, sore feet and all.

Like 64 percent of the district’s residents, Cruz was born outside of the United States, having emigrated from Colombia with her mom at age nine. She learned English by watching TV dramas like ER. And like an estimated 1.2 million people living in New York City, she was once undocumented; she only gained citizenship after marrying her husband in 2009. But she worked her way through advocacy-oriented roles in city and state government, notably as counsel to the immigration committee at the New York City Council, special assistant for labor and workforce in the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and director to the joint task force on worker exploitation and employee misclassification.

“Catalina’s experience personally as a woman of color and immigrant in Queens, and professionally on policy in the City Council, help her be a strong advocate for New Yorkers of all backgrounds,” says Sayu Bhojwani, who previously served as New York City’s first commissioner of immigrant affairs under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “She knows what it’s like to be marginalized and ignored by government and can work to be the voice of others like her in New York state.”

In Bhojwani’s view, the country is teeming with immigrants like Cruz who are ready and well-equipped to serve. So since 2011, Bhojwani has been fostering such a network, canvassing select cities in the country and looking for people to train to run for office, through an organization known as New American Leaders. It has helped Cruz—who will face incumbent Ari Espinal and Yonel Letellier Sosa in the Democratic primary on September 13—learn how to fundraise and amplify her story on a bigger stage. New American Leaders also helped Cruz realize that while hers is a local race, it is still concerned with the bigger picture—building an ecosystem of immigrant candidates in local and statewide offices across the country. “The pathway to Congress needs to be built over the long term,” Bhojwani says. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

New American Leaders was founded in a moment far before our current one, but one not so different from it. In 2008, despite Barack Obama winning the White House, Bhojwani sensed the rise of very real hostilities facing immigrants, including a surge in border patrol militias. Then, in 2010, Arizona passed the draconian SB 1070, a bill that at the time was among the most restrictive immigration laws in the country, forcing immigrants to carry identification at all times and penalizing business that hired undocumented workers before eventually being pared down by the US Supreme Court.

“Some of what we were talking about eight years ago, we’re seeing a lot of right now,” Bhojwani says, noting that interest in the program’s trainings has increased since 2016. One way to counter the harmful narratives of immigrants is to tell authentic, inclusive stories—and the best storytellers are immigrants themselves, whom Bhojwani calls the “New Americans.” They’re “leveraging the immigrant story as part of the American narrative,” Bhojwani writes in her forthcoming book, People Like Us. Many in this population, she emphasizes, have made an active choice to be in America, some of whom have even fled dictatorships or political violence in their home countries, and are thus arguably more hopeful that America can live up to its democratic ideals. “How you are translating your experiences and your story into policy is really a kind of underpinning of what we’re looking for when we recruit people,” Bhojwani tells me.

Now, for Bhojwani and her roughly two dozen staffers and trainers, the work is less about diversity in numbers or populating the halls of power with symbolic figureheads. It’s about equipping people on the sidelines of American citizenship with the practical know-how of political life, and then plugging them into a broad network of frontline and behind-the-scenes advocates whose long-term goal is to more equitably distribute political power altogether.

Across the country, Latinos and Asian Americans are the fastest-growing immigrant groups in America, according to the Pew Research Center. By 2020, more than half of all American children will belong to a group that has historically been a racial minority. California, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Texas are already “majority-minority” and have seen a rise in political representation by people of color. Even traditionally red states like Georgia and Florida are now home to black gubernatorial hopefuls like Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, and these states have seen their politics upended by growing numbers of non-white voters whom organizers are diligently working to bring into the electorate.

But while people of color have grown in number, on a macro level, their political power has remained fairly stagnant. Latinos and Asian Americans hold only two percent of the country’s 500,000 local and state elected offices. So, on a practical level, New American Leaders aims to bridge that gap. While the organization has especially strong roots in Arizona, recruiting activists, union members, teachers, university employees, nonprofit workers, and attorneys, it’s a national organization, inviting recruits to three-day boot camps that teach them the how-tos of running for office and managing a campaign: how to canvass a neighborhood and deliver a two-minute stump speech, how to ask people for money and seek an endorsement. It now holds trainings in seven states; in 2018, the group expanded for the first time to New York, Nevada, and Washington, and in 2019 it will start holding trainings in Georgia and Colorado.

“The need to target recruitment and training to address the distinct realities—both hurdles and opportunities—for specific populations is key,” says Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor at Rutgers University and scholar at the school’s Center for American Women and Politics. “We know that candidates’ experiences and challenges are not one-size-fits-all, so it is important that our efforts to address those challenges are not monolithic either.”

Since the group was founded in 2011, it has trained 600 people and notched some notable firsts: In 2013, Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, an early trainee, became the first Latina elected to the Detroit City Council. Ilhan Omar, another trainee whose family fled a Somali dictatorship and settled in Minnesota, became the state’s first Muslim American woman legislator in 2016 and is now the Democratic nominee in her district for US Congress. And while El Paso-born Carlos Menchaca is not an immigrant himself, he became New York City’s first openly gay council member representing Brooklyn largely by vowing to be a voice for Mexican immigrants in the borough. In 2016, 39 onetime trainees ran for office, and 67 percent won, according to New American Leaders. This year, 50 trainees are running for office, with 13 running in Arizona alone.

In addition to Cruz, in the midterms New American Leaders boasts the following alums running for office this year: January Contreras, who is duking it out with Mark Brnovich to be the next attorney general of Arizona and is the first Latina ever to run for the job in that state; Gina Ortiz-Jones, a veteran of the Iraq War who is openly gay and in a well-publicized battle against Will Hurd for Congress in Texas; and first-time candidate Julie Gonzales, a community organizer by trade who recently won her Democratic primary in a state Senate district in Colorado.

What sets New American Leaders apart, in Bhojwani’s estimation, is not just the group’s focus on immigrants. It’s also its strategy. It is a national organization that has very intentionally focused on states—red, blue, and purple—that have growing but mostly untapped immigrant populations. “The idea is that we go back year after year and recruit different participants and continue to contribute to an ecosystem of this particular type of electoral work,” she tells me. 

The organization recruits both people who have long dreamt of public service, like Cruz, and those who couldn’t have pictured it in their wildest dreams, like Isela Blanc, now a state representative in Arizona.

A formerly undocumented early childhood educator, she made news earlier this year when she was arrested on the National Mall during a protest of the Trump administration’s plan to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allowed a select group of undocumented young people to work in the US legally. But it’s not likely Blanc would have even been there had she not gone to a New American Leaders training in March of 2015. Before then, her only political experience boiled down to volunteering for her high school teacher’s 2006 congressional run. Looking back, she never quite felt a part of the process. “They were happy to have me as a volunteer and happy to have me make phone calls,” she says. “But I was never really included, and I was giving a lot of time.”

After a friend recommended she go to one of New American Leaders’ trainings, she decided to go learn how campaigns worked. She wasn’t planning to run for office herself. If anything, she hoped the sessions could make her a stronger advocate at her kids’ school board meetings. But during the training, she was encouraged to write a stump speech as if she were actually running for school board herself. Blanc highlighted her personal story, which included leaving Guadalajara, Mexico, at six, moving to Wisconsin, where she was one of the only Latinas in a predominantly white school, and then settling with her family in Tempe, Arizona, which was more racially diverse but far less resourced. “It was the first time I felt that I was put in a school system that really didn’t care about me,” she says now.

By the end of the three-day training, Bhojwani approached Blanc. “What struck me about Isela was there was a desire to serve but a reluctance to step into a role that she felt she didn’t rightfully belong in,” Bhojwani says. The only way to belong was to run. “When I sat down and looked at the bigger picture, I realized that it was fear of failing that was preventing me from trying to do something outside my norm,” Blanc says. In 2016, she became one of the first formerly undocumented elected officials in the country.

While its focus is on getting immigrants in office, New American Leaders is careful to note that electing people like Blanc won’t solve all immigrants’ problems; it’s merely one part of a multi-prong strategy to transform power, particularly on hot-button issues like immigration. So beyond helping in elections, New American Leaders works to keep its participants engaged and accountable, using newsletters, social media, and additional trainings to make sure former trainees are plugged into local activist work once they’re in office, much like how Blanc got involved in the DACA action on Capitol Hill.

“The mere fact of being an immigrant isn’t going to change the political dynamics around immigration,” says Barry Eidlin, a professor and author of a widely shared article after the 2016 presidential election that criticized Democrats for relying too heavily on the idea that demographic change alone would help shift power. “What’s needed is that you’re part of a broader political movement around immigrant justice, and you’re articulating a vision of politics that seeks to transform the discussion around immigrant rights.”

Over Colombian iced coffees at a small bakery later that August day, Cruz tells me in candid terms how watching Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on immigrants helped fuel her desire to run. She was content to live a relatively quiet life with her husband, work behind the scenes in politics, maybe have a couple of kids, and think about running for office in 10 or 15 years. And then Trump barged onto the scene, saying that immigrants were pouring over the US border with Mexico, “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” Then the plan changed.

“I have this privilege,” she says. “I’m formerly undocumented, I’m a lawyer, I have these connections that I’ve built for 10 years in state and city government across the aisle. Why am I not using it for something more than managing a state agency?”

Even still, she tells me this first run for office has been a lesson in endurance. The inner workings of political campaigns were not new to her—she also had a brief stint as chief of staff for city councilor Julissa Ferreras-Copeland—but on the recommendation of a friend, she came to New American Leaders. She says the three-day training she attended in May was critical in many ways, especially for fundraising. “When you grow up poor and you’re taught that you never tell anyone outside the house that you’re having financial situations, when you have to pick up that phone and actually say, ‘Hey, I need money,’ it’s a really weird conversation,” she says. “I had a really tough time with it.”

The fundraising portion of the New American Leaders training was tailored specifically to address the anxieties of people who grow up in immigrant families. “We, in the immigrant community, but more broadly people of color, are [seen] as takers, not makers,” Bhojwani says. So there’s a specific part of the curriculum that focuses on getting trainees to tell what’s called their “money story,” or their family’s history with money, and how that measures up with all the ways they actually did see people in their community pooling resources for a common cause, even if those resources were small. Now, when Cruz asks for donations, she frames her ask as a community good, not a personal one. “I’m inviting people to invest in the future of our community,” she says. “Our campaign has the highest number of donations [of all three candidates]. We have an average of about $100 or so per donation.”

For now, Cruz is trying to distinguish herself in a race in which both of her Democratic opponents are the children of immigrants. She has thus highlighted her formerly undocumented status, positioning herself as someone who knows acutely how government can fail its most vulnerable residents. It’s no surprise, then, that her political platform feels deeply personal.

In June, as word spread about the thousands of immigrant children who had been separated by the Trump administration from their parents and guardians, Cruz rushed to nearby LaGuardia Airport to, as her campaign put it, “show these kids that they are not alone and that there are people here who care about them.” But while she was there, an odd sense of déjà vu set in. Later, after talking with her mom, she understood how closely her own story mirrored those of the kids at the airports: Her mother had decided to leave Colombia after a man was gunned down in front of the family’s home in the mid-1980s. The man’s young daughter survived the attack, but she was covered in blood and had to take refuge in Cruz’s home until her own family arrived. “I remember seeing my mom cleaning the little girl,” Cruz, who was about six at the time, says now.

The story helped solidify why her personal experiences are so important in this moment. “We somehow forget we were the ones who trained the paramilitaries in Colombia. [Trump] is obscuring the fact that yes, there is violence, but the people who are showing up at our doorsteps are the ones who are fleeing that violence. They’re the ones who need our help.”

In other words, they’re people like her.