Imagine moving to a new country at a young age with the promise of a better future, not knowing that it would hold unimaginable setbacks. Imagine having to live away from your parents for the majority of your life, starting from a very young age. Imagine not being able to travel back to your home country if a parent got sick or worse, passed away. Imagine going through life giving everything your all while knowing that you would probably never have access to higher education or a real career. It takes an unimaginable amount of resilience, courage, and determination to push forward in the worst circumstances. It takes even more drive, passion, and willpower to win a race when your starting line is so far behind everyone else's. This is the story of Julissa Arce and millions of other undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and have pushed through barrier after barrier in the hopes of a better future.
Arce was 10 years old when she entered the U.S. with her family and 14 when she became undocumented. Without the DREAM Act, which passed a mere two weeks before her first semester of college, she never would have had access to higher education, she would not have had the opportunity to intern on Wall Street, and she never would have climbed the professional ladder, ultimately becoming a vice president at Goldman Sachs and a director at Merrill Lynch. In fact, she never would have even been able to work legally. Without an eventual path to citizenship, which she got after marrying her long-term boyfriend in 2009, she never would have been able to come out to tell her story, inspiring millions of other young undocumented immigrants to keep their dream alive and raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to send young New York City immigrants to college.
Her story is one of paralyzing fear, incredible resilience, a commendable work ethic, unlikely successes, and, yes, silver linings. Find out how, against all odds, a young Mexican American became a huge success in one of the most cut-throat industries and how she pushed her career aside to pay it forward.
How It All Started
Arce was a regular 14-year-old girl in Texas, dreaming of her big quinceañera party, when she first learned of her immigration status. "My mom told me I couldn't go back to Mexico to have my quinceañera because my visa had expired," she tells MyDomaine. "I was much more concerned about not having a party than I was about being undocumented because I didn't understand what it meant. It wasn't until I was applying to college during my senior year that I realized that being undocumented actually carried out a lot of consequences." Though she had stellar grades, impressive extracurricular activities, and recommendations, her immigration status prevented her from even applying to college.
"I was really disappointed; I felt almost lied to because my mom had pumped me up on the notion of the American dream," she tells us. "She had told me that if you work hard and stay out of trouble, anything is possible in this country. I had done that. I had worked really hard and stayed out of trouble. When I got to the next step, it was out of reach—and it wasn't because of anything I did. It was something I had no control over."
To cope, a young Arce taught herself to live in an alternate reality where her status didn't matter. "If I allowed myself to think about my future and my immigration status, it all came crashing down. In order for me to be able to find any peace, joy, and enthusiasm, I had to forget about my status. I kept working really hard, even though I knew that there was no light at the end of the tunnel for me. I had moved my mind into a space where it didn't matter."
How She Pursued Her Dream
Being undocumented when she graduated high school meant Arce couldn't live or work legally in her country. "I was lucky because in 2001, Texas became the first state that allowed undocumented students to go to college, and that's the year I graduated high school. So two weeks before the fall semester started in 2001, I found out that I could go to college." Before her senior year, she scored a prized internship on Wall Street. "My biggest goal was to get an offer at the end of summer. I never really thought too much about being undocumented. I just put these things aside, put my head down, and got to work. I think that ignoring all those things and staying focused on the work was what kept me moving up the ladder."
At 19, before the start of her first job on Wall Street, she got a fake green card and a fake Social Security number. "I had no idea whether these papers were going to work, but I had to try," she told MyDomaine. "I wished that there had been another way. There was nothing. This was my only choice." The biggest misconception Arce still sees today is how people think that finding a path to citizenship is easy. "There are very few ways in which people can become permanent residents. Most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants do not qualify to get in line, to fill out an application, or even to pay a fine to fix their immigration status. So the reason we stay undocumented is because there is no way for us to get documented."
Nevertheless, she persisted. "When I presented these documents at Goldman on my first day of orientation, I was a nervous wreck. I was sweating through my blouse and my hands were shaking." This fear would persist throughout her career: "It was this constant worrying of whether someone was going to find out. I had to live that way for years. In some ways, having a really stressful job allowed me to stay focused on my work and not constantly think about my immigration status. There was just not enough space in my mind to worry about both."
How Everything Changed
Throughout her career, Arce found herself having to hold back her drive and ambition in order to not draw too much attention on herself. "There was an opportunity early on in my career. I could have raised my hand and said, 'I want that job,' but I didn't do that because I knew that that job required travel to Latin America. I knew I couldn't travel outside the country." Setback after setback, she kept pushing forward. "The reason it was possible for me to overcome all those challenges was because there was a bigger reason than just me. Everything I was doing was to help my family, to bring my little brother back to the U.S. and to pay back my parents for the sacrifices they made."
After marrying her long-term boyfriend in 2009, Arce finally got a green card. "It changed everything. Having a real green card meant that I could work legally, I could travel, I could finally see my family again after many years. I didn't have to worry about getting deported because I now had legal paperwork. It was one of the biggest blessings. I remember getting it in the mail and thinking, Wow, I went through all of this for this little piece of paper." For most of her life, she had to live separated from her family. "I actually haven't been able to find a picture with my two sisters, my brother, my parents, and me. Not having this photo tells me how torn apart my family has been all my life because of this border. It still hurts me a little that we can't all be in the same place. My sister is still undocumented so she can't go to Mexico. We're still separated."
It was shortly after, while watching a documentary called Documented, that Arce decided to tell her story. "I was at the Museum of Moving Image in Queens, and I was sitting in this theater and watching the documentary, and I just felt like my entire life had flashed on screen," she says. "It was the first time in my life where I felt understood because there was someone else who had experienced what I had experienced. I thought, now that I have a green card, I can't just sit at my desk and not help others who are still in my situation. There were millions of people who were going through what I went through. That's when I decided I was going to tell my story. Everything else just fell into place once I made that decision."
How She Pays It Forward
Arce eventually released her book, My (Underground) American Dream, with the goal of helping and inspiring millions of others who found themselves in similar shoes. "I didn't tell my story so that people can know who I am. I told my story so that it can impact change for other people. At some point, I had to make a pivot from 'this is my story' to 'this is how it relates to other people.' The reason we should care about my story is because there are millions of people who are still undocumented and still don't have access to college."
Now an accomplished author, speaker, and activist for social justice, she helps fuel a constructive conversation on immigration reform. "I wish the narrative around immigration would change," she says. "If you look at the history of this country, being an immigrant was a positive thing. It meant that you were hardworking and believed in the American dream. We've now done a complete 180 on that narrative, and now immigrants are associated with drugs, cartels, crime, terrorism. I very much would love to turn the narrative back to immigrants being a positive thing for this country. On the policy side, I would love to see a comprehensive immigration reform."
Arce, who is currently writing her second book, Someone Like Me, also co-founded the Ascend Educational Fund, helping New York City immigrant children go to college, regardless of their immigration status. "One of the biggest things that changed my life was access to education," she explains. "If I hadn't been able to go to college, my story would have been vastly different. One of the things I'm most proud of in my life is being able to give someone else the gift of a college education. Since we started, we gave out $300,000 in college scholarships."
Against all odds, Arce became incredibly successful on Wall Street before deciding to pay it forward to others in her situation. She was able to break through barriers to reach her goals. Her one piece of advice is don't get caught up in the small stuff. "We all make the best decisions that we can with the information that we have at that time. There were so many times where I just didn't see the end in sight, and I would get so caught up in the small things. I wish I had taken a step back more often and looked at the bigger picture." In her case, the bigger picture would turn out to be an incredible story and a catalyst for change.