Former investment banker now immigrant advocate

Once undocumented, Julissa Arce worked at Market Square

SAN ANTONIO – A former investment banker on Wall Street, Julissa Arce now advocates for undocumented immigrants through Define American, a website that promotes understanding of those in the U.S. illegally.

Now a U.S. citizen, her story is one among many stories by undocumented immigrants sharing their experiences and their definition of American.

"I think (being an) American is about courage. It's about bravery, hard work and perseverance in the face of adversity," Arce said.

Arce said she speaks from experience.

She said a major challenge for her was living with the secret she had overstayed her tourist visa.

Arce said like 40 percent of the undocumented immigrants in America, she did not enter the country illegally.

She said many ask, "Why don't they go to the back of the line?"

But in reality, she said, "There is no line."

Arce said based on her experience, "I didn't fit any of the boxes on which I could have applied to adjust my status."

Without a Social Security number, Arce said her college applications were rejected.

But then the Texas Dream Act was adopted in 2001, making it possible for the Roosevelt High School graduate to attend the University of Texas in Austin where she earned a degree in finance.

Inspired by her parents' sacrifice, Arce said she also credits groups like the Hispanic Business Student Association for their mentoring and support.

Arce said to earn money for her education, she'd take a Greyhound bus from Austin every weekend to make funnel cakes at her parents' shop in Market Square.

But she said when they lost their space to make way for a museum, Arce was forced to get a fake green card to get a job.

As described by Bloomberg Businessweek in a recent article, Arce hid that she was undocumented while employed at Goldman Sachs, a major Wall Street securities firm.

Arce said she was haunted by it, asking herself, "What am I doing here? What if someone finds out? What if someone already knows? What if they know just by looking at me that I'm not really supposed to be here?"

Yet Arce was so successful in the complex world of financial derivatives, she was made a vice president.

"Billions of dollars were being exchanged on a daily basis, and my clients had yachts that were bigger than my house," Arce said.

But hearing about the struggles of other undocumented young people, Arce decided to go public, but first she told her former employers and co-workers at Goldman Sachs.

Arce said although some were offended, feeling they were lied to, the reaction was largely positive.

She said many told her, "I'm shocked that you were going through all of that. I had no idea. But it doesn't change my opinion about you and who you are as a person."

Arce said she was especially touched by the statement from Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs, for the Businessweek profile.

Quoting from the article, it reads, "Wouldn't it be great if we could give a home to more of the talented young people who come to this country for an education and want to apply their energy and skills to supporting our economy?"

Arce said, "His reaction was more than I could have hoped for."

Watch an extended interview with Arce below.