Alejandro Londoño came to America from Colombia at the age of 6, speaking no English and carrying a pink bag with a radio and some toys. Now 20, she is a U.S. citizen and a senior at Stockton University, where she helped start a program to help immigrants prepare for naturalization. Immigrants want to make a contribution to their new home, Londoño says, and Americans should welcome their energy and optimism. “They’re people who are making our community better,” she says. “They’re the ones who are going to make America great again.”
Londoño’s family came to America legally, but only after a long wait. In Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, her father was a successful radio journalist and sports commentator, her mother a school principal. But violence plagued the region: Londoño’s aunt was killed weeks after her wedding, and the radio station where Londoño’s father worked got caught in a feud between two drug cartels. “It was a very scary time,” Londoño says.
An uncle living in Atlantic City filed a green card petition on her mother’s behalf and later added other members of the family. Still, it took 12 years for the petition to be approved. And while America brought safety, it also meant starting over. Londoño’s father worked for a laundry company, then as a window cleaner in a casino, and eventually in management for a cleaning company. Her mother also started in casinos, before retraining and finding work in early-childhood education. “When people think about immigrants, they think about living poor,” Londoño says. “But I was very lucky that my parents worked so hard to give my brother and I so many wonderful things.”
Now Londoño wants to repay their hard work by building a career for herself. She’s double-majoring in Spanish and sociology-anthropology, and dreams of working for the United Nations. “With my background in travel . . . it’d be a great step for me to take, and would let me help people,” she says.
I don’t think it should be a partisan issue. We should look at a person and see what they’re contributing to the U.S., and then make decisions based on that.
As president of Stockton University’s Model United Nations chapter, Londoño attends meetings throughout the United States, and is preparing for a trip to an international conference in the Galapagos Islands. She also does pro-bono work as a notary, has worked as an interpreter for two New Jersey companies, and volunteers at the Stockton Center for Community Engagement, where she helped create a program to teach immigrants U.S. history and politics in preparation for their citizenship interviews.
The program now has three teachers in New Jersey. Londoño says she loves seeing the joy on students’ faces when they finally gain citizenship. “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” she says.
More than a fifth of New Jersey residents are foreign-born, and Londoño is quick to point out the stability and benefits that acquiring citizenship brings. Studies have shown that citizenship increases immigrants’ access to jobs, boosting earnings and subsequent economic contributions in the form consumer spending and tax payments. A 2015 study by the Urban Institute found that if eligible immigrants in 21 cities naturalized those economic gains would translate into a combined $7.7 billion annually. “I see the wonderful things that being a U.S. citizen can do for you,” Londoño says.
Immigration is a complex issue, Londoño says, but she would also like to see undocumented families given a realistic pathway to legal status. On a recent trip to California, she spent a few days with an undocumented family, and was shocked by how difficult their lives were. “I don’t think it should be a partisan issue. We should look at a person and see what they’re contributing to the U.S., and then make decisions based on that.” If Congress provided a path to legalization for the millions of undocumented immigrants already here, the economic benefits would be sizable. Economists estimate the rising incomes would result in a $1.4 trillion growth in U.S. gross domestic product and an additional $791 billion in personal income for Americans over a ten-year period.
For her part, Londoño wants to keep working to make a positive contribution. “One of my goals in life has always been to make sure my parents came here for a reason, and that their efforts and struggles weren’t for nothing,” she says. “I think going to school, and doing the community service I do, and being so involved in my community has made a difference. I hope to continue making that difference.”