From Undocumented Immigrant To Wall Street Executive

In the current race to the White House, immigration continues to serve as a hot-button issue. But often left out of heated conversations is any sense of who the immigrants being debated and discussed actually are. The “us versus them” narrative central to modern political discourse strips people of their humanity — and leaves Americans with a poor understanding of the actual lives of immigrants.

This lack of understanding has allowed detractors to successfully cast “illegal” immigrants as lazy, uneducated, and potentially even dangerous to our country. Out of the many stories that resolutely contradict this assessment, few are more powerful than that of Julissa Arce.

Arce moved from Mexico to the U.S. at the age of 11 and became undocumented at 14, after overstaying a tourist visa. She worked hard to excel in school and get a corporate job. Eventually, she scored a job at Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs, a notoriously difficult firm for people to get into, even with Ivy League credentials. She rose up the ranks from intern to vice president — all while remaining undocumented.

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Julissa at an I Am Latino in America event

Arce’s remarkable story has received national press, including features in Elle, Bloomberg Business, and NPR. But now, she’s telling her own story in the forthcoming book, My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive.

The book allows Arce to tell her story from her own perspective, and to touch on the various parts of her life that don’t fit neatly into the many articles that have tried to categorize her journey. This is especially important considering that the stories of people of color who have had socioeconomically-challenging lives — specifically undocumented immigrants — are often told by people outside of the community. While solidarity is key to making progress, giving voice to people to tell their own stories is crucial.

“I think a lot of times, people report on issues that affect our community from their point of view,” says Arce. She adds:

“It’s never from our point of view. And it’s interesting also what’s happening [with the] #OscarsSoWhite movement. When you do see people of color who win Oscars, it’s usually for roles that are stereotypical. And those movies and stories are not told from our perspective and not the way that we have told those stories. I’m incredibly excited to be able to share my story from my point of view.”

That point of view includes not only her struggles in college — as has been well-reported by the media, Arce attended the University of Texas at Austin and took an 80-mile bus ride to continue her parents’ business of selling funnel cakes at the Market Square in San Antonio — but the other, numerous obstacles that stood in her path before and after. Arce couldn’t attend law school as she couldn’t take out student loans, for instance.

She’s quick to point out that her experience, while unique, is not too different from that of many undocumented immigrants. Many of her own challenges apply to the immigrant community at large, especially when it comes to education and the lack of opportunities for students who want to study but are held back by prohibitive laws. This fuels the determination of groups like the “Dreamers,” the students who fight for equal education opportunity through the DREAM Act.

“Had the country taken action, my life could be so different and [the lives of] millions of people could be so different,” says Arce. “We’re at that point again where it’s in our hands what happens to these people’s lives.”

For this reason, Arce purposefully chose a September date — before the 2016 presidential election — as the release date for her book. She hopes that her story will break down stereotypes and open up conversations about immigration, education, and equal employment.

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Julissa speaking at an I Am Latino In America event.

Arce also wants to provide support to other undocumented immigrants, particularly younger immigrants, who feel isolated.

“For me, the biggest thing is I hope that young people don’t feel alone in going through their journey,” she says. “Because when I was growing up, telling someone that I was undocumented seemed impossible. Being undocumented was a social shame. It was something you didn’t talk about, and I felt completely alone going through high school and college.”

Though she has told her story to many audiences, Arce says she still feels a little nervous each time around. Arce’s family worried about her future when the Bloomberg Business article was released and subsequently went viral. She admits to feeling anxious right up until the night before the story went live. But the book represents her refusal to stay silent: a rebellion against those that might want to quiet stories that don’t fit the stereotypical mold of immigrant narratives.

“I’m nerve-wracked all over again, but in a different way,” says Arce. “I’m also really excited and I’m not afraid anymore to say this is who I am, this is what I went through.”

Arce is currently juggling a number of projects, including a position as chairman for the Ascend Educational Fund. A scholarship and mentorship program, the Fund runs solely on volunteers and focuses on helping immigrant students. While she works on advancing the causes she believes in, she participates in a number of discussions and speaking events. She will soon appear on a panel with the governor of Arizona.

While she recognizes that others might disagree with her own immigration beliefs, Arce believes that no one can argue with her remarkable story. Her life of determination and perseverance, complete with a movie-like series of ups and downs, continue to inform her fight for civil rights and legal progress for immigrants. And if like Arce, more undocumented immigrants are empowered to tell their own stories, we may not find our leaders resorting to stereotypical and racist tropes about them in the first place.

You can order My (Underground) American Dream here.

All images courtesy of Julissa Arce.

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