Miami-Dade County

A Wall Street star’s incredible journey from undocumented immigrant to broker

Julissa Arce, high-flying Wall Street star turned immigration activist, at Miami International Airport.
Julissa Arce, high-flying Wall Street star turned immigration activist, at Miami International Airport. El Nuevo Herald

Julissa Arce was once a rising star in Wall Street, selling investment products to wealthy people from a desk at Goldman Sachs. But the secret she could share with no one gnawed at her.

She was an undocumented immigrant who could not travel to see clients beyond U.S. borders because her papers were fake. She was a driven stock broker, with a bright future in the investment world — but she was not happy despite the large amounts of money she was making. That’s because Arce lived in constant fear of being discovered, detained and deported to her native Mexico.

How Arce, 31, became an undocumented immigrant, soared to the rarefied levels of Wall Street high finance and then stepped forward to reveal her story was recently the subject of a lengthy BloombergBusiness article. Now, Arce is traveling around the country talking to other journalists as part of a campaign to change how America views foreign nationals who have no papers. She was in Miami this week and talked to el Nuevo Herald and Univisión television. She was interviewed by el Nuevo Herald at Miami International Airport, where she boarded a plane back to New York, where she lives.

“We want to achieve a change in American culture as to how we speak of and how we treat immigrants,” she said during an interview in Miami on Wednesday.

Arce has joined forces with José Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist from the Philippines whose case caused a sensation in 2011 when he revealed he was an undocumented immigrant.

Arce is now development director of Define American, a group founded by Vargas to protect the rights of undocumented immigrants and reshape their image. One of its key campaigns is to convince news media outlets to call these foreign nationals undocumented immigrants instead of illegal aliens.

“If there is a cultural change, then there will be an environment in which immigration reform can pass [in Congress],” she said. “When we talk about immigrants, especially those who are undocumented, we always talk about them in political terms or statistical terms but never as human beings. We do not assign to them a human face, people with dreams, aspiration and ambitions and this is our goal.”

Arce would also like to encourage others like her to emerge from the shadows.

“I am not the only one like this and Jose [Antonio Vargas] is not the only one,” she said. “Like me and Jose, there are many people.”

Unlike Vargas, who remains undocumented, Arce is no longer undocumented.

When she was 11, Arce traveled with her parents to San Antonio from Taxco, a tourist town north of the resort of Acapulco, known for silver mining and crafting of jewelry. Arce’s parents sold Taxco jewelry on their periodic trips to the United States.

On one of the trips, the family — with Arce in tow —simply overstayed their tourist visas. Immigration experts say that about 40 percent of immigrants become undocumented when they overstay their visas.

At 14, Arce’s visa expired and her journey into the shadows of the American immigration system began.

She was enrolled without problems at a Catholic school, where she excelled in math. Then in 2001, she managed to enroll at the University of Texas at Austin and majored in finance. Her parents moved back to Mexico that same year, but Arce stayed because she wanted to make her life in the United States.

When she started looking for a job and while making plans for further college studies, Arce realized she was stuck in immigration limbo unless she obtained papers.

It was then that she made the fateful decision to buy a fake green card.

That opened doors to jobs she could not have dreamed of. It’s how she got an internship at Goldman Sachs, which eventually she leveraged into a full-time job with periodic promotions. Four years ago, in 2011, she was working as a vice president and earning between $300,000 and $400,000 a year, according to the BloombergBusiness article.

Goldman Sachs did not respond to a request for comment.

But Arce was haunted by the reality of her undocumented status. As immigration controls tightened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she realized could not hide her immigration secret forever.

Her boyfriend, a U.S. citizen, had the solution.

He proposed marriage and she accepted.

After the wedding, Arce became a permanent resident. During interviews with immigration officials, she said, she did not hide her purchase of the forged green card, but no action was taken against her. Her citizenship application was also approved and she swore allegiance to the United States last year.

As to the future, Arce doubts she will return to Wall Street as a stock broker — but does not discount some kind of business venture.

“I’ve always been a business executive and I imagine I will go back to do that because I’m good at it.”

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