From Undocumented Immigrant to Immigration Reform Advocate

March 20, 2018 at 4:33 pm Leave a comment

When she speaks at college campuses across the country, Julissa Arce is often asked why undocumented immigrants in the U.S. don’t do things the “right” way, why they can’t simply “get in the back of the line.”

Her answer is always the same: If there was a right way to come here, if there was indeed a “line” to stand in, then that is where undocumented immigrants would be. That’s where Arce—a former Wall Street executive who came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was 11 years old, and lived and worked here undocumented for more than a decade—would have happily stood. Unfortunately, “the line is a mythical place,” she says, because contrary to what many believe, there are very few ways for people to legally emigrate to the U.S.

Julissa 1

Arce—who spoke earlier today as part of the Penn State Forum series at the Nittany Lion Inn—considers herself “lucky” as far as undocumented immigrants go. Her parents brought her into the U.S. by plane and on a valid tourist visa, and that made things easier for her years later when she married her American boyfriend and applied for a green card, before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2014. But for Arce, the relative ease of the final administrative processes can never erase the torment of being undocumented, of waiting in stomach-churning fear for the authorities to get wind of her status, realize that her social security number and green card were fake. When would they come for her, Arce wondered almost every day, as she successfully completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Austin (she began studying there the year Texas passed a law allowing noncitizens, including some undocumented immigrants, to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges), completed internships at Goldman Sachs in New York City, and accepted a full-time job with the firm, rising through the ranks quickly to become vice president?

Inevitably, the ax fell when Arce had every piece of the American dream she’d always wanted, with a phone call informing her that her dad (her parents returned to Mexico when she started college) was seriously ill.

“My mother begged me not to go,” she said, because her undocumented status meant Arce would not be allowed to re-enter the U.S., “but I knew if I did not go, I would never be able to live with myself. Anyway, while I agonized about whether to go or not, my dad died. That was the cost.”

Everyday across the U.S., undocumented immigrants are facing similar dilemmas, Arce—who quit her job at Goldman Sachs after she got her green card—says, and having to take difficult decisions with painful consequences.

Since revealing her incredible story in 2015, she’s been a tireless advocate for proper immigration policy—particularly as it pertains to Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. She is chairman of the board of the Ascend Educational Fund, a New York-based organization that provides educational scholarships and mentoring to young, undocumented immigrants who want to go to college.

“Education was my way up and I’d like for others to have the same opportunity,” she said. “That’s what we come here for—opportunity.”

Arce’s 2016 memoir, “My (Underground) American Dream” has been adapted into a television miniseries starring actor America Ferrera.

Savita Iyer, senior editor

In the May/June issue of the Penn Stater, we’ll feature interviews with experts from across the university on the topic of immigration.  

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Entry filed under: The Penn Stater Magazine.

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