Secrets of an Undocumented Wall Street Executive

Julissa Arce, at the presentation of her book “My (Underground) American Dream” in New York City. (Photo by Ana B. Nieto via El Diario)

Julissa Arce, at the presentation of her book “My (Underground) American Dream” in New York City, with Alberto Ferreras. (Photo by Ana B. Nieto via El Diario)

“There is no one who believes in America more than immigrants because we are willing to risk our very lives, cross oceans, walk through deserts, to come to this country.” At a political moment in which Donald Trump – the Republican candidate to the presidency – has ascended on a platform that includes blasting immigrants, building walls and massive deportation, the statement won Julissa Arce a sincere applause from the audience.

This happened last week in New York during the presentation of the book written by the Mexican author and former top-level Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch employee, entitled “My (Underground) American Dream.”

In it, Arce tells the story about the risk she took. This year in November, she will vote for the first time. However, during the time she handled complex financial products on Wall Street, Arce hid the secret of being an undocumented person, a status she had for 15 of her 33 years of age.

As a teenager, the tourist visa she had obtained while she was in San Antonio, Texas, with her family expired. Despite this, she was admitted to the University of Texas at Austin, and she was able to pay for it thanks to her parents’ help and a state program.

Instead of returning to Mexico with her parents, she bought a fake green card and social security number. Having these two indispensable documents allowed her to end up working at banking firm Goldman Sachs, where she gradually climbed the corporate ladder. This is hard enough for a woman and a Latina, but unthinkable for someone in her immigration situation. “My mom always encouraged me and told me that I was capable of doing anything I wanted. I took it to heart,” she said.

Although this was positive motivation, in the book’s first chapter, Arce talks about how she arrived in New York and suffered a panic attack shortly before starting to work. Thinking it was a heart attack, she ended up in the emergency room.

That is the beginning of the memoir, which seeks to make readers ask themselves: “What would I do in that situation?” as the author says. “Everyone has to make tough decisions that are difficult because the options are difficult,” said Arce, who lamented having lacked “a legal route to fulfill my dream.”

None the wiser

In an interview with El Diario, Arce said that she does not believe that her story is unique, regardless of her success on Wall Street. She said that other undocumented people, such as Pulitzer-winner José Vargas and neurosurgeon Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa, have achieved goals and gained recognition the same way she has. Still, she acknowledges that in her sector her immigration status went undetected “because, when you think of undocumented people, most of them work at restaurants, taking care of our children or in strawberry fields in California. That’s the image [most people have].”

“When I showed up for this job, it wouldn’t have crossed anyone’s mind that I could be [undocumented]. They didn’t even imagine it. That helped me a lot because, when I handed out my papers, no one was going to question them even if they didn’t look 100 percent real.”

Despite this, Arce admits that her heart skipped a beat once in a while. “I thought: ‘Today is the day they will realize that my papers are fake.’”

It was a close call one time when she received a letter from the IRS asking for clarification from her and the company regarding her social security number, which did not match the one in their records. “I was horribly scared thinking that the letter could have been sent to the company too and that someone would want to talk to me about it. But a week passed, and then two and three, and no one asked to see me. So I put the issue away in a physical and mental closet.”

Arce’s story became public through an article published by Bloomberg Businessweek magazine. She was able to obtain a legitimate green card through marriage but, during the process, she had to admit that she had been using falsified documents. “I had resources to get the best lawyer. Many things could have happened, but they didn’t. The system is arbitrary,” she said. Actress América Ferrera bought the rights to a TV version of the book. Arce likes the idea of the project: “The perspective of immigration needs to be changed from the entertainment side as well.”

Julissa Arce speaks at Strand Bookstore in New York after her interview with El Diario. (Photo by Ana B. Nieto via El Diario)

Julissa Arce speaks at Strand Bookstore in New York after her interview with El Diario. (Photo by Ana B. Nieto via El Diario)

Changing the dialogue

Arce explained that publishing her book at such a politically significant moment for minorities and undocumented people is coincidental. However, she conceded that “the moment couldn’t have been better because the language we are using to refer to immigrants is based on racism, and it is very important to realize that, through our stories, we can change the dialogue we have on immigration.”

Arce no longer works on Wall Street, and most of her time is dedicated to advocating for social justice and collaborating with the Voto Latino organization. She is also the chair of the Ascend Educational Fund, which helps immigrant students.

Regarding the presidential candidates, Arce considers Trump’s positions illogical. “We have two options. Clearly, one of them is not the right person. However, Hillary Clinton is going to have to deliver because, unfortunately for her, Latinos were already responsible for electing Obama; we gave him that advantage. But then, what did he do? He has deported more people than any president in history.”

That is something that “can’t be forgiven,” she said. “The lives of the 400,000 deported people every year have changed. What he has taken away from them cannot be given back. Hillary is now carrying Obama’s legacy so, if she doesn’t do something soon, she will not be president for eight years. If she does it for four, it will be mainly because the other option doesn’t exist.”

Arce, who appeared in the HBO Latino documentary “Habla y Vota,” said that the U.S. needs to approve immigration reform “with a path to citizenship for people who have been undocumented for a long time.” She also wants the methods through which people can come to this country and reunite with their families changed.

Arce offers alternatives to Washington’s paralysis. “If a federal reform does not pass, there are many things that can be done at the state and local levels to help immigrants. I was able to go to high school because Texas passed a law that allowed undocumented people to go to college. Without that, other doors would not have opened for me. Another thing is driver’s licenses for undocumented people so that they don’t have to drive without insurance and in fear. Ten states already issue them, and it has been of great help.”

“In California, we are fighting for those with DACA to have access to health insurance. These are things that can be done more easily at a state level rather than waiting around for immigration reform, even if that will be the only permanent solution. Everything else is like a band-aid; but sometimes you do need those band-aids.”

Julissa Arce moved confidently around Wall Street, but millions of people are reluctant to raise their voices to denounce wage theft or dispute bills because they live in fear. She is telling them to not give up. “Keep going, because there are solutions. They may not be the ones we want or the easy ones, but the reason we came to this country is because we are looking for a better life and we have to continue in that quest,” she said.

Watch Julissa Arce’s interview with Alberto Ferreras at Strand Bookstore on Sept. 13, 2016:


  1. Homie dred says:

    So commit fraud and be rewarded? Wow.

  2. Why was she never prosecuted for identity fraud for the false Social Security number? I would also think she would be acting in a criminal manner signing legal and securities documents .

  3. So it’s not politically correct to ask if someone was ever charged with income tax fraud or immigration fraud ?

    Does simple legal inquisitiveness frighten the moderator?

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