Author advocates for immigrants

Author Julissa Arce shares her story about the American Dream Thursday as part of Pitt’s International Week. (Photo by Hari Iyer | Staff Photographer)

From watching “Dennis the Menace,” “Beverly Hills, 90201” and “Saved by the Bell,” Julissa Arce’s American dream began at a young age.

Growing up in Mexico, Arce watched American television shows with wonder and curiosity. She especially identified with Dennis from “Dennis the Menace” and recalled an episode where Dennis took revenge on a mean neighbor by putting his house on wheels.

“I wanted to grow up in the United States in a house on wheels,” Arce said at the William Pitt Union Thursday. “That was my dream.”

Arce — a former undocumented immigrant who rose to become a vice president at Goldman Sachs and director at Merrill Lynch — spoke to an audience of about 30 people at Pitt for International Week in the Union’s Ballroom. She talked about her own experiences and the immigrant issues currently happening in the United States.

The author of “My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant,” Arce is a writer, speaker and advocate for immigrant rights. She also is the co-founder and chairman of the Ascend Educational Fund — a scholarship fund for immigrant students that enables them to have educational and professional opportunities regardless of their immigrant status.

Despite recent success, watching these television shows throughout her youth, Arce formed an idea of what America was — and she didn’t quite fit in.

“Everyone in these shows looked exactly the same,” Arce said. “They were all rich, they were all beautiful, they were all white.”

At 11 years old, Arce’s family flew to the United States and moved to Texas with a tourist visa. When she came to the United States, Arce said she was told to assimilate and learn English. Learning English was a “means of survival,” she said, but the concept of assimilating was more difficult.

Though Arce, now 34, had graduated in the top 5 percent of her high school class with extracurriculars, the American dream seemed far-fetched. She was rejected from all the colleges she applied to because she did not have a social security number and always left that section of the application blank.

But Arce found her opportunity in 2001. Texas became the first state to accept undocumented immigrants into its universities, and she received a $10,000 scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin, presented to her by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

“On the plaque it said I was a ‘ray of hope for Texas’s future,’” Arce said, “Little did [Perry] know I was undocumented.”

Arce saw a poster one day on campus advertising a summer internship at Goldman Sachs — an investment bank on Wall Street — that paid $10,000. She figured if she could become rich it either would not matter that she was undocumented or she could fix her immigration status. Her new goal became to work on Wall Street where she would “fake it until [she made] it.”

She got the internship at Goldman Sachs and was later offered a full-time job — which she obtained through purchasing a fake green card and social security number. At this point in her speech, Arce broke away from the story for a moment.

“This is where I tend to lose people,” Arce said. “People say ‘oh, she’s a criminal.’ But think about all the unlawful things that happen in our country.”

As Arce spoke, projected on the screen behind her was a map showing states that had banned granting undocumented students access to higher education — such as Alabama and Georgia. But living in Texas, Arce had access to an education which opened doors to new opportunities.

“Looking back, I still think I was lucky,” Arce said. “I was a 27-year-old vice president at Goldman Sachs and I had a boyfriend that could dance.”

Arce concluded her speech by discussing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — an executive order by former President Barack Obama that protected young undocumented immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents — like Arce was.

But Arce said after President Donald Trump rescinded DACA, the 800,000 people who were promised protection are all “in limbo.”

Pedro Pallares, an audience member, had a personal connection to this part of Acre’s speech. Pallares, a sophomore majoring in bioinformatics, is a former undocumented immigrant and said this speech was particularly influential for him.

“I think for anyone here who has never interacted with an undocumented immigrant would get a lot out of it,” Pallares said. “This would be a good eye opener.”

Pallares is now a citizen, but he and his brothers have been following Arce’s story for a long time, taking inspiration from her success for their own lives.

Arce’s success story resonated with senior Christine Nguyen, a computer engineering major. Nguyen’s passion for advocating for minorities and her involvement in Pitt Excel — a program to help retain minority engineers in the engineering program — motivated her to attend the event.

“We need to amplify more diverse voices and get more representation higher up in the social hierarchy,” Nguyen said. “It’s important for [minority students] to bring this different perspective into a very majority, white dominated field.”

Arce said that her story had a happy ending. She became an American citizen through marriage and now uses her platform to advocate for immigrant rights.

But she said there a lot of undocumented immigrants who no longer believe that the American dream is possible and that many immigrants are going back to their native countries.

“If people no longer risk everything to come here, then I think that makes America less great,” Arce said. “If there’s a day where people stop thinking America is milk and honey, then America stops being great.”

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