Julissa Arce Discusses Immigration, Citizenship & Opportunity


At the age of 27, Julissa Arce was “living the American Dream,” she told JWU students during her visit to the Providence campus on October 19 for the kick off event of the sixth annual JWU Goes Global week. 

She came from an immigrant family, attended and graduated college, and, over 7 years rose from an intern to a vice president at Goldman Sachs. But there’s a twist to Arce’s story—she had been living in the United States as an undocumented immigrant for more than 15 years.

Arce and her family moved from Mexico to San Antonio, Texas when Arce was 11 years old; entering the country with tourist visas that eventually expired. The family lived a life like many others, her parents working and Arce excelling in school. It wasn’t until she began to apply for college that she began to understand “what it meant to be undocumented.”

“I kept getting denied from colleges,” Arce said, “all because my applications were missing a very important 9 digit number. A Social Security number.”

Luckily for Arce, the state of Texas passed a law the year she graduated from high school that made it possible for undocumented immigrants to attend public universities and pay in-state tuition rates. Arce paid for her college tuition with money earned at her family’s funnel cake stand; a "stash" of $1 and $5 bills she crammed into a closely guarded backpack. Being undocumented also prohibited her from opening a bank account.

Arce described her college years and, later her young adult life as a hardworking, yet rightfully anxious, Wall Street employee. “I lived every day in fear,” Arce said. Any time she was unexpectedly called into her boss’ office or drove a car, she was afraid that today was the day she was going to be deported. She had secured her job at Goldman Sachs and passed her background check with faulty papers, but had no idea how far these documents would take her.  

After the death of her father, Arce seriously considered returning to Mexico. This would mean, however, giving up everything she had worked for in the United States; her job, her friends, her boyfriend. If she were to leave the country, she would be banned from returning for 10 years. When she finally told her boyfriend all this, he proposed. After 5 years, $20,000, and numerous interviews and forms, Arce finally became a U.S. citizen in August of last year.

While telling her story Arce also played video clips, including one that showed young adults responding to the question “What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘immigrant’?” and another that described and dispelled some of the most common myths surrounding immigration. She shared immigration statistics, and encouraged students not to believe everything that they hear, but to investigate situations and make their own decisions. She also encouraged them to look at global issues in their own communities.

“Immigrants risk their lives and leave everything [in their country] behind to make this country great,” Arce concluded. “Mine is just one story, there are thousands of other stories out there.”