UA’s Realizing the Dream Committee hosts spring 2018 lecture

Julissa Arce, author of “My (Underground) American Dream,” spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Realizing the Dream Distinguished Lecture Series on Tuesday.

By Rebecca Cole
News Reporter

When Julissa Arce first came to the United States from Mexico at the age of 11, she envisioned the American dream as becoming successful. But even when she became successful, pulling down six figures on Wall Street, she did not feel like she had achieved the dream.

Arce is an author and immigrant rights advocate who came to Tuscaloosa as part of the Martin Luther King Jr. Realizing the Dream Distinguished Lecture Series.  Arce shared her life story of being an undocumented student, to working on Wall Street, to helping other immigrants achieve citizenship and their own American dreams.

“When you’re 14 years old, you really don’t know – at least I didn’t know – what it meant to be undocumented. I didn’t realize, yet, what the consequences were, now that I was undocumented. But I very quickly learned the things that it meant to be undocumented. For me, it meant that I had to learn how to hide.”

Arce grew up in a mixed-status family. Her little brother was born in the United States, so he was a citizen. Her parents’ VISAs were still valid at the time, but Arce’s had expired. She spent her middle and high school years hiding behind her English and behind her academic accomplishments, trying to appear as American as she possibly could without having papers.

She mentioned the Pledge of Allegiance, and how it reminded her of being in sixth grade and her first week of living in the U.S.

“[It reminded me of] going to school and putting my right hand over my heart and pledging allegiance to the flag – just like many kids do when we’re in elementary school – and thinking about just how long it took for that same flag to recognize me as one of its citizens. Even though, I had been pledging allegiance to this flag since I came to live here,” Arce said.

She graduated in the top 5 percent of her class in high school, but when applying to colleges, all of the letters that came back to her were rejection letters. Without a social security number, she would not be able to attend college. However, in 2001, the state of Texas – which is where Arce lived – became the first state to admit undocumented students into its colleges and universities.

She called the University of Texas at Austin and asked them to review her application again. The university did, and in the fall of 2001, Arce was a student at UT. While in school, she saw a flyer for an internship on Wall Street that offered $10,000. After taking a year to gain experience, she found herself in Wall Street at a 10-week internship at Goldman Sachs.

After 10 weeks, Goldman offered her a full-time position. Her excitement soon faded and reality set in when Arce realized she still did not have a social security number. While she is not necessarily proud, she does not regret her choice to purchase a fake credit card and fake papers in order to accept the job. At Christmas, Goldman gave out bonuses. At only 22 years old, Arce’s bonus alone was $66,400 in her first year.

Arce finally achieved the American dream, did she not? No matter how successful she was, she said she was constantly living in fear of being deported. The only way for her to fix her immigration status – without first being sent to back to Mexico for 10 years – was to marry a U.S. citizen. After being in a relationship for a while, her boyfriend proposed and they hired an immigration lawyer to help her achieve citizen status. It took five years and $20,000, but she finally became a documented citizen of the United States.

The process changed Arce’s life forever. She decided to leave Wall Street. She knew then that she had to help people who are going through the same situation she went through.

In 2012, Arce established the Ascend Educational Fund, a nonprofit that enables students in New York City, regardless of ethnicity or immigration status, to earn a higher education. In 2016, she published her book, “My (Underground) American Dream,” which shares her story as an undocumented immigrant trying to achieve the American dream.

Dr. Mary Jane Krotzer, the vice president for institutional effectiveness at Stillman College, said Arce’s lecture was insightful.

“It was an insightful and timely discussion about immigration,” Krotzer said. “Particularly, helping us to remove the political from it, and really see it as a humanity issue, I think, is really helpful to all of us.”

The lecture was on March 27 at the Embassy Suites hotel on University Boulevard. The Martin Luther King Jr. Realizing the Dream Committee works to raise awareness about injustice and promote human equality, peace and social justice through educational and cultural opportunities.