The American Dream: How one undocumented immigrant made her way to Wall Street

(Julissa Arce spoke last Monday, April 25, on humanizing the topic of immigration in the United States. Photo by Cass Doherty.)

In the early 2000’s, Julissa Arce roamed the halls of her college campus, not letting herself worry that her days in the United States may be numbered.

Instead, she made her grades a priority, ensuring she did everything in her power to make a name for herself, staking it on the belief that if she could garner success, she’d be able to change her circumstance.

Arce was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

It was with this steadfast commitment Arce took advantage of an internship on Wall Street.

With little money to her name, Arce seized the opportunity, skyrocketing up the corporate ladder to eventual success today.

Arce, now a legal United States citizen, left her high-profile job as a Goldman Sachs executive a few years back and today, as well as being an activist for immigrant rights, professionally speaks about her journey of achieving the American Dream to help humanize the topic of immigration.

Arce shared her story in the Forum last Monday, April 25.

“There is so much power in our stories,” Arce said. “I think it really helps us think and reshape who undocumented people are. Because who would think that an undocumented person was working on Wall Street? Who would think that an undocumented person could be our classmate? Who would think they could be our doctors?”

Arce stated the main goal of her talk was to shed light on the issues of immigration and to bring the human element back to the forefront of the conversation.

“So often when we hear the word ‘immigrant’ we just think about immigration – the statistics – and not the people who have dreams and aspirations, who are humans beings just like the rest of us,” Arce said.   

Although Arce considers the United States home today, when she arrived with her parents at the age of 11, she had her own set of misconceptions about the U.S.

Arce said she perceived the U.S. to be the land of the “rich, white and beautiful” because that is what she saw on TV when she lived in Mexico.

“I thought as soon as I came to America I was going to turn white and be rich, and never really have to go to school,” Arce said.

At the age of 14, Arce’s tourist visa expired and, although she was starting to believe that the U.S was her home, she was suddenly labeled an ‘illegal alien.’

This made applying for college later on a struggle, Arce said.

In 2001, however, not long after Arce graduated high school, the Texas DREAM Act went into effect, making it the first state to give undocumented immigrants the ability to go to college.

To pay for college, Arce inherited her family’s funnel cake stand after her parents decided to move back to Mexico so she could take over the business and use the money for school.

Although her parents weren’t with her, Arce lived by her mother’s words – “If there’s an opportunity you can’t take advantage of, make sure that it’s because of something that was out of your control,” Arce said.   

Arce put her mother’s words into practice.

In 2004, after working tirelessly to meet their standards, Arce accepted a summer internship position at Goldman Sachs.

The one caveat – Arce used her fake legal documents to obtain the position.

“For me, that was the only choice I had,” Arce said. “I couldn’t give up – not just on my sacrifices, but every single sacrifice my parents had made in order for me to be where I was.

“A lot of people will say I used those fake documents to get in and I didn’t deserve it. … 17,000 people apply … about 300 people actually get one of those internships,” she said. “I was one those people. It wasn’t the fake papers, it was everything that was on my résumé.”

While at Goldman Sachs, Arce did everything in her power to differentiate herself from her peers.

She was the first to arrive and the last one to leave the office everyday and she made sure to ask questions based off of readings and research, avoiding questions she could have just googled.

By the end of the summer, Arce was offered a full-time job after her graduation.

By 27, she was a V.P. at Goldman Sachs, still living with her secret.

In 2007, Arce reached a turning point after she was unable to get back to Mexico to see her father before he passed away.

She confided in her boyfriend at the time and told him everything.

So he proposed, and since Arce came to this country with a tourist visa so many years ago, she was able to change her legal status when the two got married.

Arce stressed, however, that it isn’t so easy for immigrants who come here illegally to gain citizenship through marriage. Additionally, Arce stressed that money was a huge factor in helping her gain her citizenship as it gave her access to high-profile attorneys.

Looking back at everything she was able to achieve and attain, Arce realized that she had to give back.

“I had everything at that point. I had a green card so I could travel. I had an amazing career,” she said. “It was then that I realized that for millions of people, no matter how hard they work, and no matter what they do, they still cannot change their circumstances.

So, Arce started Ascend Educational Fund, “a scholarship fund for immigrant students regardless of their immigration status,” according to her website.

Towards the end of Arce’s talk, she showed the audience a few pictures of white immigrant workers in the1920s, and posed a question.

“Why is it different?” Arce asked. “Why did we give people before us the opportunity to have a better life, but now we don’t give the same opportunities for the immigrants of today?”

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