Julissa Arce

For an undocumented immigrant, what is the true cost of the American Dream? In her new memoir, My (Underground) American Dream, Julissa Arce examines that question as she tells her inspirational story.

Julissa was 11 when she moved to San Antonio from Mexico, and she learned that she was an undocumented immigrant on the day of her quinceañera. Despite all odds, she excelled in her studies, and in 2005 she became an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Over the next six years, Julissa continued to conquer the corporate ladder, achieving phenomenal success while living in fear because of her secret undocumented status.

Julissa has decided to use her story to fight for immigrant rights and change the national conversation around immigration. In addition to writing her memoir, she is the chairman and co-founder of the Ascend Educational Fund (AEF), a college scholarship and mentorship program for immigrant students in New York City, regardless of their ethnicity, national origin, or immigration status.

Julissa will join us at Jackson Heights Community Library to discuss her memoir, her success as a woman on male-dominated Wall Street, and more with New York State Assemblymember Francisco Moya.

Tickets to this free event—which will be held in English (at 2:00 p.m.) and Spanish (at 3:15 p.m.) on Saturday, September 17—are still available.

Julissa was also kind enough to answer some questions for us before her upcoming event.

What role have libraries played in your life?
I've always loved books, and libraries make books accessible to everyone. If knowledge is power, then libraries are the fuel for that power. However, for the longest time I couldn't borrow a book from a library because you needed a valid I.D., and as an undocumented immigrant I couldn’t get a valid I.D. It was frustrating that something as simple as getting a book from the library was so cumbersome for someone in my situation.

Can you tell us more about the Ascend Educational Fund and how it helps immigrant students?
AEF has awarded over $200,000 in scholarships over the last four years. We believe that, regardless of immigration status, all students deserve access to the same educational and professional opportunities. For many of our students, AEF is their only hope of going to college. I struggled to pay for college, and I promised myself that one day I would create a scholarship fund to help students in my situation. These students have persevered through unimaginable circumstances and we are proud to be able to play a part in their journey.   

You were officially sworn in as an American citizen in August 2014—how excited are you to vote in a presidential election for the first time this fall? 
I feel incredibly privileged to exercise my right to vote this November. My first vote will be in a critical election for our country. Our next president is going to appoint the ninth Justice of the Supreme Court, so this election will impact generations to come. There are cases on issues ranging from immigration to voting rights that the next justice will help decide. 

Immigration has been a heated topic in this year’s presidential campaign. Despite their past statements, what would you like to say to both candidates about immigration reform? 
Immigrants cannot continue to be a scapegoat for you. Our country has always been a country of immigrants, and together we make America great. We love and believe in this country so much that we are willing to cross oceans, walk through deserts, and risk our lives to come to America in search of a better future. Immigration reform would not only enrich the lives of immigrants themselves, but it would also enrich our country. Immigration reform would strengthen our economy, create jobs, and make our country more secure.

What are some of your favorite books and who are your favorite authors?
I love Paulo Coelho, C.S. Lewis, Eddie Huang, Sandra Cisneros, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Wright, and Turney Duff. Their writing is so honest and raw—every single one of them has influenced my philosophy and writing. In terms of business books, I swear by The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, How to Win Friends & Influence People, and pretty much anything Malcolm Gladwell writes. One of my newest favorite books is Self Made by Nely Galan. 

Despite your immigration status, you achieved so much in your life at such a young age. What are your lessons for success?
1. Focus only on the things you can control.
2. Be strong in your convictions.
3. Be nice to people.
4. Most importantly, do the work, don't take shortcuts.

What advice would you give to other young people who have found themselves in a situation like yours?
Do not give up; your dreams are worth your sacrifice. Do not worry about the million things you cannot control; instead, focus on your education, focus on developing your professional skills, and the rest will fall into place. I will continue to fight for your rights and work tirelessly to even the playing field.