By Talia Dennis

Author Julissa Arce spoke to students at this university April 3 about her life as an undocumented immigrant and the current situations many others are in during a Voices of Social Change talk, hosted by Leadership and Community-Service Learning.

During the event titled, “Undocumented Immigrants: The True Cost of Achieving the American Dream,” Arce said she came to the United States from Mexico on a tourist visa when she was 11 years old with her parents.

At 14, she became an undocumented immigrant because her visa expired. She was the only undocumented immigrant in her family, she said, explaining that her parents had business visas that had not expired and her younger brother was born in the United States.

The author of “My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became a Wall Street Executive” said she did not truly understand what “undocumented” meant until she was applying for college in the early 2000s.

“Being undocumented meant it didn’t matter how good my application was — every letter I received from colleges was a rejection letter,” she said. “It wasn’t because I hadn’t worked hard enough, I had a really great application, it was just because I didn’t have a nine-digit Social Security number.”

It was the first time she realized there were major consequences that came with being an undocumented immigrant, she said.

However, she said she lucked out because Texas passed a law that allowed undocumented immigrants to attend college, pay in-state tuition and get state financial aid. When she attended the University of Texas at Austin, her parents and brother moved back to Mexico.

Arce said she kept her immigration status a secret because it was “a source of shame.”

Following a summer internship at The Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Arce said she was offered a job when she graduated college. While she said she initially felt joy and excitement for the opportunity, it went away when “reality set in” that she was still an undocumented immigrant and did not qualify to fix her immigration status.

“There are very few ways in which someone can become a legal, permanent resident and eventually a citizen,” she said. “And if you don’t qualify for any of those ways then there is no line for you to apply.”

The line to become a citizen doesn’t exist, Arce said.

“If there was a line, I would be first in line … I’m very early to class, I would be first in line,” said Reg Ledesma, the moderator of the event in Hoff Theater at Stamp.

Arce said she ultimately purchased a fake green card and Social Security card, explaining it was the only decision she could make so she could pursue her American dream and “to honor the sacrifices” she and her parents made.

While discussing the choice, she mentioned it was still uncomfortable for her to talk about because she doesn’t intend for it to come across as tricking the system.

“If there had been another way, I would have done it another way because there is this misconception that the reason we stay undocumented is because that’s the easy route to take,” Arce said. “And that is the most difficult route to take because you are living in constant fear. There’s a lot of real consequences to doing that.”

One year after she started working at Goldman Sachs was “comp day,” where everyone finds out their bonuses for the year. Arce said her paper read $66,400, which brought “my total compensation to $125,000.”

As a result, she said she believed she “made it” and achieved the American Dream. This achievement of success signaled to Arce that she could become an American and fix her status. However, it was not the case.

She said a couple weeks later, she received a “painful reminder” from the Internal Revenue Service. It was a letter saying her name and Social Security number did not match and she would not receive credit on her taxes unless she fixed the error. Even though the letter was also sent to Goldman Sachs, it is not a red flag for immigration and thus nothing happened, she said.

People who just get married and do not change their last name may also receive this letter, Arce said.

“It didn’t matter how much I had accomplished, financially or professionally, or how long I had lived in the U.S. or how many crimes I didn’t commit,” she said. “It didn’t matter. I was still undocumented and there was still nothing I could do to fix my immigration status.”

Arce explained how her view on the American dream changed because her success went unrecognized by the U.S. government.

By the age of 27, Arce was the vice president of the Wall Street company. Around that time, she received a call from her sister who said their father was sick. She said her first instinct was to get on a plane and visit him. However, if she crossed the border, she would not be able to come back to the United States because she was still undocumented.

She described this experience as a “gilded cage” because she had luxury and privilege, which she said she was grateful for, in the United States, but she said she felt like leaving was not possible.

In the hours Arce was deliberating about going to Mexico, her father died. This moment became a turning point in her life, she said, while getting a little choked up. Arce told herself it didn’t matter that she made a lot of money or was vice president of Goldman Sachs. Eventually, she left the company.

Arce is no longer an undocumented immigrant. Following her father’s death, she told the person she was romantically involved with the reason she was unable to go to Mexico, she said. They ended up getting married and she said she was able to adjust her status.

“And that’s one of the biggest ironies of my life because my mom brought me here so that I could be an independent woman,” she said, earning chuckles from the crowd. “And then, none of my own accomplishments could save me. I had to wait and be rescued by this man and he didn’t have to come on a white horse, but he did have to come with papers. And that kills me because why couldn’t my work be enough?”

Arce noted that for some married couples where one person is an immigrant, that individual’s status may not be able to be adjusted. She explained if someone came with a visa versus illegally, it is easier to adjust immigration status after marriage.

However, renewing or obtaining a visa requires leaving the country and if it is discovered the person was living in the U.S. illegally for at least one year, then the person is banned for 10 years, she said.

Toward the end of the talk, the audience was allowed to ask questions. Isabel Jorrin Garcia, who introduced the speakers, told her story about immigrating from Cuba, which had different immigration policies than countries like Mexico and Honduras.

She wanted to know how to battle Latinx community members attacking each other due to different immigration statuses.

“My family did it the right way, why can’t yours?” is a narrative Arce said she frequently hears. She explained that the way Cubans could come to the United States was different than immigrants from Mexico.

Even when Cubans crossed the U.S.-Mexican border, they were granted refugee status and were given a way to legally become a resident in the past, she said. However, Mexicans, Hondurans and Guatemalans were deported even though each nationality tried to get in the same way, she said. Policies for Cuba were different, which led to a different path, Arce said.

“We have two senators in the U.S. Congress who like to say their families came here the right way,” she said. “And I like to remind them a lot that the way it was the right way for their families was not available to the rest of us.”

Arce continued by saying some immigrants who came through Ellis Island also had false documents and “chopped off the last three letters of their last name to sound less Polish or sound less Jewish because at that time those types of immigrants were less desirable.”

Making the argument that someone’s family came to the United States the right way demonstrates “a lack of understanding,” said Arce.

Before the talk concluded, Ledesma briefly discussed correct terminology to use when talking about immigrants who live in fear of deportation every day.

They said the proper term is not “illegal immigrants,” but rather “undocumented immigrants.”

Ledesma acknowledged the counterargument about the word choice being “too politically correct;” however, the former is dehumanizing, they said

Arce and Ledesma agreed it is best if everyone is truly informed on the topic of immigration and does not assume any experiences.  

Sonia Prabhu, 23, of Novi, Michigan, said she wanted to read Arce’s book following the talk.

“I thought it was a really critical conversation,” she said. “Experiences of undocumented people are very vast. We need to fight against harmful narratives.”

Featured Photo Credit: Julissa Arce speaks to students at the Hoff Theater in the Stamp Student Union (Talia Dennis/Bloc Reporter).

Talia Dennis is a sophomore journalism major and history major and can be reached at tdennis1@terpmail.umd.edu. 

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