Many immigrant families and communities face barriers to utilizing social services and integrating into their communities. These challenges exist across healthcare, housing, legal assistance, education, workforce development, and more. On the latest episode of Policy Outsider, New York State Assemblymember Catalina Cruz talks about her experience as an immigrant, as a lawyer, and as a lawmaker, and how these shape her perspective in developing policy to support immigrants. The conversation also covers the knowledge-generating role of the new Institute on Immigrant Integration Research and Policy, which will inform evidence-based integration solutions for policymakers.


Honorable Catalina Cruz, New York State Assemblymember

Learn More:

Institute on Immigrant Integration Research and Policy

  • Transcript

    Transcript was generated using AI software and may contain errors. 

    Alexander Morse  00:02

    Hi, welcome to Policy Outsider presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. I’m Alex Morse. Immigrants serve a vital role in the societal and economic well being of New York. However, many immigrant families and communities face a number of barriers to social services and supports that can help them achieve healthy productive lives in their pursuit of the American dream. In order to better understand the challenges many immigrants face, the New York State Legislature recently formed the Institute on Immigrant Integration Research and Policy, housed here within the Rockefeller Institute. The Immigrant Integration Institute will use quantitative and qualitative research methods to identify evidence based integration solutions for policymakers. Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, who sponsored legislation that formed the new immigrant integration research institute, joins the podcast today to talk about her experience as an immigrant and how she’s advocating for immigrants to integrate into society as seamlessly as possible. The conversation touches on many of the challenges facing immigrants such as health care, housing, legal assistance, continuing education, and help finding answers to these questions will help policymakers ease the transition for immigrants and promote integration coming up next. Welcome to a very special episode of Policy Outsider, I’m joined today by Assemblymember Catalina Cruz. She’s the assemblymember of the 39th assembly district, which incorporates Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights. Assemblymember, thank you so much for joining us today.

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  01:53

    Thank you for having me, Alex.

    Alexander Morse  01:55

    So we’re here today to talk about the new Institute on Immigrant Integration Research and Policy, housed here at the Rockefeller Institute. And you were very instrumental in the formation of this institute and we’re going to be talking to you a little bit about what some of the goals are for the institute research center, and why it is important to you that we have this. But I wanted to just start off by getting a little bit of background on your career and your upbringing and how you came to be where you are today.

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  02:22

    I am very, very happy to be joining you guys. Yes, the immigrant integration Institute was one of my babies last year aid, it was a great project that my former team member, Guillermo, had this concept and idea, because we often were looking for research and information about various topics that had to do with with immigrant communities in the state. And there was such a lack of real data around it, that we thought, you know, this is a really good way, if we’re going to find solutions to these problems, we need to understand how bad they really are. And that’s why you need the data. I was born in Colombia, and I came to the States when I was nine years old as an undocumented American. And then about, I want to say 13-14 years, that way, became a permanent resident citizen and a lawyer. And, you know, was able to dedicate my career to fighting for families like mine, from immigrant rights to tenants rights to working in various levels of government, from the city council to the executive, in, you know, the state level, and even state agencies has given me kind of a an inside baseball look, if you will, and how the sausage is made. And so now that I’m a legislator, I get to be able to say, they look, I think this is how this particular project is going to operate in the real world. Or no, I don’t think that an agency is going to be able to do that, or no, I think that agency will be able to do that we can push them in that direction. And that has been really helpful in trying to guide me in how to be a better legislator. As a lawyer, you know, I dedicated a lot of time to helping individual clients. But now I get to help millions of people all around the state.

    Alexander Morse  04:17

    It’s a really interesting personal perspective that you bring, you have the immigrant background, the upbringing and through an immigrant community. So you have that level of perspective. And then as you mentioned, different stops in your career from law to now being a legislator. So you have that really broad based skill set to try to identify some of these problems and this is why we’re looking at this evidence based data research to help you focus on the problems. And I want to kind of shift gears and talk about some what are some of the problems facing immigrants and immigrant communities today, and we’ll kind of break it down by a few overarching subjects and let’s start with health care. So social safety net programs were instrumental to help many New Yorkers was managed through the COVID 19 pandemic. Yet, a lot of these social services weren’t available to many immigrants, and especially the undocumented, some of the services like food stamps, unemployment insurance, health care, access, rental assistance. All of these services were really instrumental in to helping people navigate the pandemic. But as I just mentioned, they weren’t always available. So how are immigrant communities and families recovering from the initial COVID 19 outbreak? And what were the economic impacts of these lockdowns?

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  05:35

    You know, it’s, it’s a loaded question. Because the reality is for many of these families, the pandemic, their health care pandemic began long before the COVID-19 pandemic began. These are families, these are immigrants, undocumented families in districts like the one I represent, which happens to have the most undocumented folks in the state of New York, when you look at their access to health care, unless it was an emergency, there was no access to health care, unless it was urgent enough for them to go to the ER, they were not going to get preventative care for diabetes, or heart conditions for all of the underlying health issues that exacerbated your health anytime you got COVID-19, all of the things that we now know and are familiar with. And so what that meant is that during the pandemic, these are the people that that sick the most and that even died. And you know, during the pandemic, I’m not even going to sugarcoat it and say that it was anything other than unwillingness to support my neighbors, I had to fight tooth and nail with both the city and the executive administration, the state administration, that’s the former governor and the former mayor, to get something as simple as a vaccination drive in Corona, Queens. We were the epicenter in Corona and Elmhurst and we had to fight to get a vaccination drive. It was insane. And so I say that to give you an example of where we were, and we’re still there, we’re still in the exact same ways. Because last year, during the state budget, you know, a deal was made to expand health care coverage, Medicaid, if you will, or you know, the state health care coverage to undocumented seniors and women who were pregnant, and that has been insufficient, but now it was delayed on top of that, so they haven’t even began implementing it. And add to that, that many people have long term COVID. The many people still have the same health care issues that they had pre pandemic, and they have no way to get services. I will say that at a hyperlocal level in the city of New York, the prior mayor began a pilot that is now city wide with a health and hospitals that allows undocumented immigrants to be able to access preventative health care. So that’s something but it’s not enough. And it’s not a statewide solution.

    Alexander Morse  08:05

    Yeah, we know preventative health care is one of the most important first steps. It’s cheaper, it’s more effective and then if problems are allowed to persist and you used the word exacerbate, then it becomes more costly, and many families are just not able to absorb those costs.

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  08:21

    Yeah, in the fight, for lack of a better word, because I think it’s a fight that we’re in now is getting health care coverage expanded to all undocumented New Yorkers, and it’s an easy fix, because it’s money that’s there from the federal government in all we need is the governor to ask for a waiver. Washington State just received it. And we’re hoping that we can too. And then we get money from the federal government is not even money that the state of New York has spend, it’s money from the federal government to then be able to provide health care to this segment of the community. And what I want people to remember is that these are the same segments of the community who when they’re working, they’re paying taxes. But they’re not benefiting from any of that because they are undocumented, so they can’t benefit from any of the social safety net programs, like food stamps. Many of them had to go to food pantries like one that I ran right out of my office because we had no choice to be able to support people. And so it’s also the humane thing to do. These are people who have been working who are the frontline workers who were the delivery workers, that you and I could stay home in our cozy apartments, not having to worry about having to go out and they were the ones delivering our food. And now all they’re asking is for dignified treatment for their health. And I’m hoping we can get that for them this budget.

    Alexander Morse  09:40

    You had mentioned that there was the federal waiver that could help cover the costs for health care for the undocumented. Is there anything at the state level that you’re working on to try to reduce barriers to health care?

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  09:51

    Well, that’s That’s it. It’s the it’s the coverage for all piece. And so under coverage role, it’s a two part process. It’s a… we’re willing to go through it and to get the money from the federal government and to disperse it. But the governor has to be willing to ask for the waiver. And so it’s a bill called coverage for all my colleagues, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas is the lead sponsor. And that’s what we’re working on at the state level.

    Alexander Morse  10:16

    I know healthcare is an enormous part of providing services. One segment of health care or one thing that can be predictive of health care, which is housing, having access to affordable housing. And so even before the current high inflation rates that we’re all experiencing now, housing costs in New York have become a huge burden requiring a large portion of one’s take home pay. What do you think about this affordability crisis? Do you see it ending anytime soon? Or is this situation going to drive immigrants to leave New York?

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  10:48

    Look, I think New York is always going to attract immigrants, because it’s just it’s the concept of the promise land, if you will, or for what the American dream entails, for a lot of people. But that American dream has become very expensive for many, not just for immigrants, but for native New Yorkers has been here for decades, there have been several solutions proposed at the table and we’re discussing several for this year’s budget, in trying to figure out how to tackle this affordability crisis. And not just the affordability crisis, but in certain parts of the state of our state. It’s also about the actual stock, the availability of actual housing. So in looking at the different proposals, there’s one that would impact the city of New York to allow commercial buildings to be turned into housing and often affordable housing. There is a proposal to put approximately $300 million into the ERAP program. And part of it would go to NYCHA to help people pay for their back rent, because the affordability crisis is such a wide multifaceted problem that it’s going to need several solutions, tackling different parts of that problem. There’s the eviction, there’s the affordability, because when somebody gets evicted, and then they’re gonna rent it out to another person, and they hiked the price. So everything is connected, and then you have Good Cause. And Good Cause is a bill that, you know, I tend to believe that has been misinterpreted by a lot of folks, I understand that, you know, small landlords are concerned about their ability to choose who they can run to. And in, I think at the end of the day, all that the bill is trying to do is create a level playing field where a landlord can’t just evict someone, as they say, willy nilly, and has an actual reason. Like, the person is not paying their rent, and can’t just hike up their rent by 300%. I’ve had constituents here coming in, who don’t have a lease, and the landlord says, Oh, well, your apartment was $1,500. But I’m going to take it to $1,700, $1,800, $1900, all in one shot. And while a $200 increase, doesn’t in concept sound like a lot, it is a lot for a family, it is a lot for a single person to just have to shell out an extra $200 when they’re already fighting to figure out how to pay for their medication, or their transportation, for their food, etc, etc. So I’m hoping that this year we’re going to in the budget in this part of what I’m fighting for, include a multitude of possible solutions to the different parts of this problem.

    Alexander Morse  13:32

    Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head, it’s hard to absorb price increases, generally speaking, and if rent or housing costs are jumping up, like you mentioned, medication, groceries, transportation costs are up everywhere. And so it’s very hard for a family to absorb that. You had mentioned, Good Cause eviction, and I think that’s a nice segue into legal assistance. Currently, people who are facing eviction or maybe even deportation, immigrants, specifically, they need access to legal services. And I’m aware that currently immigrant advocates are pushing for state funding for legal assistance for the undocumented immigrants, the original price tag for this program was estimated to be about $300 million. But changes to the proposal now have the price tag at roughly $50 million. I’m curious to know what these changes were and if this reduced price is going to be enough to cover the costs.

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  14:30

    So some of the changes had to do with creating a system where we’re ramping up the the implementation of the program. So the first year would be $50 million, the second year, etc, etc. Until we get to $300m and some odd so it’s not that we reduced the cost that we are you we are implementing in a way that we think it’s more reasonable for government and that it also allows for the community based organizations who are going to be carrying out the program to do it in a way that It’s not almost a shock to their system. Because imagine being a small organization with maybe three lawyers, four lawyers, you have a $500,000 operating budget, and you get a grant for $5 million. And all of a sudden, you got to go from three lawyers or three to four lawyers to 10, lawyers to 15 lawyers. It’s a lot, it’s, you know, you gotta make, we got to make sure that we’re not setting up the community or the organizations or the state to fail when we when we kind of implement this. The other change that was made in I think it’s also in part of that ramping up is to create avenues to encourage more people or more young attorneys and inexperienced attorneys to go into immigration and to go into this, this area of public practice of public law practice, because more often than not, and I say this out of my own experience, getting a job in immigration, right at a law school, it’s very, very difficult, if not nearly impossible, and we want to make sure that we are encouraging attorneys to go into these jobs that are going to be well paid. Legal services generally is not a well paid profession. I was in it for a very long time. But it’s the kind of profession that allows you to help a lot of people. And so it’s, you know, we have changes to encourage more attorneys to join the profession and in have it be well paid to ramp up in a way that allows for a setup for success not failure, and to allow for services that aren’t just legal services to be part of the concept. Because what people don’t understand is, or oh, maybe people don’t understand it. What people may not know is that when you are an immigrant with 1000 other issues and access to a lawyer becomes available, that lawyer often becomes also your social worker. But if they have many other cases, they can’t do that for you. So we’re setting it up so that there’s caseworkers social workers social safety net support for these folks to ensure that they’re completely successful in their attempt to become a citizen.

    Alexander Morse  16:59

    I think that’s really important to build the foundation for all of these different support structures to help immigrant families build up the capacity, and the ability to pursue their own careers and pursue their own lives and want to contribute and be citizens just like anyone else, and their neighbors. So when immigrants do move here, many immigrants bring with them higher education credentials that were earned and workforce skills gained in their country of origin. For example, they may be a doctor or a dentist in their former country, yet, when they arrived in the United States, they’re relegated to under employment status, working as taxi drivers, cleaning homes and offices. What is it that you may be working on or what New York can do more broadly, to capitalize on the skill set they bring with them?

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  17:49

    You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned that my mother was one of those. My mom, when when we were in Colombia, she was a nurse. And when we came to the States, she was a domestic worker, a street vendor. A, we call them volunteras, the ladies give out the flyers on the streets. My mom did anything and everything, not only because she was undocumented, and couldn’t work, but even if she would have been documented, she would have had to go through a long process to recertify all her credentials, and it’s not something she could really afford, financially to do, because, you know, how do you do that and still provide for a family? It’s a very difficult process. You know, we had been working on on a bill that would allow that only for DREAMers and the thought was, you know, when President former President Trump jeopardize the status of DREAMers, you know, and many of them had attained educational credentials and professional credentials. We wanted to protect them. And so, you know, the Empire State Licensing Act, was born out of wanting to protect the DREAMers. But then we began thinking beyond that, there were many people who needed for us to open the door so that they could go through the process of having their credentials recognized in the state, or if they chose to get new credentials, that they wouldn’t lose them. And so the bill has been a little bit stalled, because we have had to reprioritize especially during the pandemic, but we’re looking at bringing it back and figuring out how do we help these folks get the skills that they need, and and be able to choose that profession or a completely different one, if that’s what they want.

    Alexander Morse  19:29

    Is that something that can pass as a standalone piece of legislation or is that going to be signed as part of the budget negotiations?

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  19:34

    It is it is a standalone piece of legislation right now we have unfortunately had to put it in the backburner for a little bit. But we are hoping that after the budget, we can kind of pick it up back up.

    Alexander Morse  19:45

    Great, thank you. And sticking on that train of thought with immigrants bringing in skills a lot of them have entrepreneurial dreams, right? They come into communities they want to open up a restaurant, or another type of business venture like a construction company. What can New York do in the similar vein to better help aspiring entrepreneurs?

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  20:06

    I think New York does not do a fantastic job at helping people understand the multitude of regulations that we have are connecting them to someone who understand that. I remember this statistic from years ago, and I suspect is very much the same new immigrants will open up businesses, close them within a year. And the reason why varies, but more often than not, what I hear anecdotally, from my neighbors, is about the insurmountable amount of regulation that they have to comply with, and they feel like they have no support. I’ll give you an example during the pandemic, the number of people who got caught up by the lack of information, when it came to applying for grants so that they could stay open. So they came to complying with everything from the lockdown to the liquor authorities regulations around who could be at the restaurant, who couldn’t be at the restaurant, in that beginning part where were a lot. There were people who almost lost their liquor license, because we fail them as a state to give them the correct information. And that is a theme that expands beyond just the pandemic, it expands to all of government. One of the things that I tried to do is work very, very closely with the Queens Chamber of Commerce, who has done far better job than our state and city agencies and helping me get information to the hands of small business owners. And unfortunately, we don’t have something some an entity that does exactly that, for people looking to open up a business. We have it for people who have the business, but we should be focusin, and I would love to figure out a way to do that, for the people who want to open it up.

    Alexander Morse  21:50

    That interplay between different levels of government and communication is integral for not only business owners, but just neighbors and residents and community to know what their representatives are doing and to know what opportunities are available to them. So best of luck in trying to fortify those those levels of communication. Switching gears just a little bit, I want to talk about the refugee crisis that’s currently unfolding in New York, more than 45,000 refugees have arrived in New York City, via buses from border states. And that has drawn national attention, and you are on the streets there as this is happening. So I would like to know, what are you seeing what are the challenges that these refugees and asylum seekers are facing when they arrive.

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  22:33

    Oh, it’s, it’s their ability to work on the books, you know, many people are choosing to go work off the books, had jobs that are extremely underpaid, you know, everything from retail to carwashes, to cleaning, to construction, etc, etc. Because the way that the system is set up, you’re not going to get a work permit for a little bit of time. And then the bigger challenge is going to be if they end up not qualifying for asylum, they’re going to lose that work permit at some point, and they’re going to be undocumented. And so that’s been, I think, very, very challenging for the city to navigate because the city of New York can give them emergency housing, if we want to call it anything other than that. I don’t I don’t know, that living out of a hotel or even when they had the tents set up, you can call it anything other than emergency housing. Is it appropriate housing? I don’t know, you know, I, I have visited several of those locations. I have talked to families and to individuals to to because they have one that specifically just for men. And it’s a very complicated situation, because while we know that these folks deserve dignified treatment, dignified support, the funding available to do it is not there for the mayor. And so the mayor finds himself in his very uncomfortable, I say uncomfortable because because I suspect that he feels situation where he wants to do right by these migrants. But he doesn’t have all of the resources he needs. And the state is looking the other way. Because the Governor has proposed funding, we’ll see if she follows through in the state budget. But it’s there’s been very there’s been a lack of real action on the part of the governor in the president and given the mayor hand and resolving the crisis here at home. And so you have the kind of housing that is not permanent, that while people are expressing that they’re being treated well, that is dignified. We know they deserve better. We absolutely know they deserve better. And so every single one of those folks that I’ve spoken to when I visited those places, when I say how can we help you? They say help me get a work permit, help me get jobs, help me work. They want to work, they want to be able to provide for their family and be able to move out of those situations and into permanent housing.

    Alexander Morse  25:04

    What’s the best way to offer help to get them to work? Is it through local government, state government, federal government? Federal government.

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  25:10

    The federal government is the only one that has the power to provide them with a work permit, to expedite the process for the work permit, and that is, unfortunately, out of our hands as state and city.

    Alexander Morse  25:22

    Immigrants certainly face a lot of challenges. But assemblymember, you are fighting for them. And I’m sure that they all would love to say thank you. And we are looking forward to seeing how legislation how New York State is working to address some of these crises. And what the Institute on Immigrant integration research and policy can help find evidence based solutions to some of these problems. So honorable Catalina Cruz, assemblymember of the 39th District of New York State. Thank you so much for taking the time to share some insights into these situations.

    Assemblymember Catalina Cruz  25:55

    And thank you for inviting me Alex, you know, this is a long road to providing immigrants the support that they deserve, and that they need in order to become full functioning members of our New York State society. And I think the institute is going to be a key piece in giving us the data that we need to do a better job for New Yorkers and for immigrant New Yorkers.

    Alexander Morse  26:20

    Thanks again to Assemblymember Catalina Cruz, for joining the podcast to shine a light on some of the pressing issues facing immigrant communities, from housing, to health care, to education and workforce development. Immigrants provide an influx of services that contribute to society and bring with them a wealth of culture and experience that benefits New York State and beyond. The Institute on Immigrant Integration Research and Policy, housed within the Rockefeller Institute, will research many of the topics we discussed today in greater detail and provide evidence based policy research to help inform policymakers on how to best serve immigrant families and communities and to help them achieve healthy productive lives as they seek to fulfill the American dream. You can learn more about the Institute on immigrant Integration by visiting Did you like this episode? Let us know. Please rate, subscribe and share. It will help others find the podcast and help us deliver the latest and public policy research. All of our episodes are available for free wherever you stream your podcasts and transcripts are available on our website. Special thanks to Rockefeller Institute staff Joel Tirado, Heather Trela, Laura Schultz, and Guillermo Martinez for their contributions to this episode. Thanks for listening. I’m Alex Morse. Until next time Policy Outsider is presented by the Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York. The Institute conducts cutting edge nonpartisan public policy research and analysis to inform lasting solutions to the challenges facing New York state and the nation. Learn more at or by following at Rockefeller inst. That’s Rockefeller i n s t on social media. Have a question comment or idea? Email us at [email protected]

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Policy Outsider” from the Rockefeller Institute of Government takes you outside the halls of power to understand how decisions of law and policy shape our everyday lives.

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