American Dream


My (Underground) American Dream

By Julissa Arce (Center Street, 2017)


Despite the literally Trumped-up notion that undocumented immigrants bring mostly drugs, rape and murder into the country, what most anti-immigration folks seem to fear is that undocumented workers will take away their jobs.

Julissa Arce, a young woman who sold funnel cakes to pay for her education at the University of Texas at Austin and then went on to land a dream job at Goldman Sachs, ruins that notion. At the age of 11, Arce’s tourist visa expired and she became an undocumented Mexican immigrant living in the U.S. With Horatio Alger-level hard work, Arce eventually obtained an internship at Goldman Sachs. Because of her powerful performance, she was offered a job and ascended to the position of vice president., which she didn’t take away from anyone. The whole time she had to hide the fact that she was undocumented.

With a backstory that includes Mean Girls-type drama at school, coma-inducing funnel cake machine explosions, jewelry theft and a sad-eyed cheating boyfriend, Arce’s immigrant story reads like a telenovela. But here’s the funny thing: For a struggling immigrant, Arce sounds far more entitled than most. As a kid growing up in the silver-mining town of Taxco, Mexico, Julissa was well-off enough to go to Catholic school; take lessons in piano, karate and ballet; and still find time to be seduced by images on American TV and pine for how great things could be in the U.S., a land where her parents made a living selling Mexican silver.

While in college, Arce acquires a fake Social Security card in order to work regular jobs. She then bemoans how much harder it is than selling funnel cakes to tourists. Arce is a hard worker, no doubt, but she is no working-class hero. After enduring the ardors of finally becoming legal, Arce complains about the time it takes to get a driver’s license. There is no doubt she was brave, but she was not fearless. Arce was terrified of revealing her personal info to pals planning a trip to Mexico, not wanting to explain to them that there was a chance that once she crossed that border she would not be able to get back.

Arce’s book mangles many myths regarding Latino culture, the work ethic of immigrants and even the sense of entitlement that supposedly cloaks their upward mobility. She elaborates artfully on the fact that undocumented workers do indeed pay taxes.: “Yes, I paid taxes. Like millions of undocumented immigrants in America, I had taxes taken out of my paycheck every single week. Those taxes went to Washington under the Social Security number I supplied. Where they went from there was up to the government. My taxes, along with $100 billion paid into the Social Security fund over the last decade by undocumented workers, all went into the system.”

Things obviously worked out for Arce, who now travels the world to speak on immigration issues and is the co-founder and chairman of Ascend Educational Fund, a scholarship and mentorship program aimed at enabling immigrant students.

But her story does say something unpleasant about the state of U.S. immigration, that this young woman who was trusted with high stakes deals on Wall Street, this woman who in every way is extraordinary, finally became a legal citizen in the most ordinary way imaginable. She married a U.S. citizen and got a green card.

Roberto Ontiveros