The Nancy R. Chandler Visiting Scholar Program presents author and immigration rights advocate Julissa Arce

What: Arce speaks about her memoir

When: 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday Where: COCC Coats Campus Center — Wille Hall, 2600 NW College Way, Bend

Cost: free, reservations requested

What: A conversation with Arce about her work as an immigration rights advocate

When: 9 to 10:30 a.m. Wednesday Where: COCC Coats Campus Center — Wille Hall, 2600 NW College Way, Bend

Cost: free, reservations requested

Contact: or 541-383-7257

Julissa Arce was 11 years old when her parents brought her on a tourist visa from Taxco, Mexico, to San Antonio, Texas. At 14, when she asked if the family could go back to Mexico for her quinceañera party, her mother revealed they had outstayed their visas and were living in the United States illegally.

Arce did not foresee then how her immigration status would influence her decisions, relationships and career for the next decade.

Arce shared the journey in her 2016 memoir, “My (Underground) American Dream: My True Story as an Undocumented Immigrant Who Became A Wall Street Executive.” Now a speaker and immigration rights advocate, Arce will discuss her experiences Tuesday and Wednesday at Central Oregon Community College in Bend.

A face for immigrants

The contentious national argument about U.S. immigration policy is often boiled down to numbers that become a swirl of conflicting data and heated rhetoric.

Those on both sides of the debate quote and misquote various figures to support their points of view: 11 million unauthorized immigrants are believed to currently live in the U.S.; 690,000 people are enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program; an estimated 600,000 more young people are eligible but not enrolled in DACA; illegal immigration costs the U.S. an estimated $99 billion annually; illegal immigrants pay more than $11 billion in taxes each year; and on and on.

“My biggest reason for writing the book was to be able to put a human face to this issue of immigration and remind people that behind the statistics and the news and the political debate, there are people and families,” Arce said.

Overcoming the odds

After learning she was in the country illegally, Arce was initially most upset about not being able to have her dream 15th birthday party. It wasn’t until the National Honor Society member wanted to apply for college that the implications of her immigration status really hit hard.

She could not even consider attending college in the U.S. until June 2001, when Texas passed the nation’s first state laws permitting illegal residents to attend Texas colleges and pay in-state tuition rates.

Under that program, Arce graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin, completing an internship at Goldman Sachs along the way. This led to a job offer from the investment bank after her graduation. However, because of her immigration status, Arce used fake documents to complete the hiring process at Goldman.

Throughout high school, college and her years working on Wall Street, Arce told virtually no one outside her family about her immigration status. That was partly because she felt embarrassed and ashamed by it at the time, but also due to security concerns.

“If you tell someone, you never know what they might do with that information,” Arce said.

In just seven years, she rose up the ultra-competitive Goldman ranks from analyst to vice president — with a matching six-figure salary. Nevertheless, keeping such a big secret from her closest friends and her boyfriend took an emotional and physical toll that manifested in severe panic attacks and migraines.

“Since I had no way then to rectify my immigration status or change the immigration policies, I studied hard and worked hard and tried to focus on contributing to my community and society,” Arce said.

After she was unable to travel to Mexico to see her ailing father before his death, Arce finally broke down and told her boyfriend she was in the country illegally.

“It was a very big relief to finally tell someone that I loved and trusted, and he was very kind and understanding,” Arce recalled.

Legal residency and the courage to speak out

Arce and her boyfriend married in 2009, and she decided to try gaining legal status. Despite being married to an American citizen, there was a possibility she could be barred from the U.S. for up to 10 years once she revealed her presence and history to immigration authorities.

“I had talked it over with a lawyer and knew I had a better chance of not being required to leave since I had initially entered the country legally, but it was still a big risk,” said Arce.

“But I was also fortunate because I had money and resources that many others in similar positions didn’t.”

Still, it took several years and around $20,000 in legal and other fees before Arce became a legal resident, and in 2014, a U.S. citizen.

She could have carried on her comfortable life and finance career once the threat of deportation no longer cast a shadow over her, but the narratives about illegal immigrants Arce heard from politicians and news organizations prompted her to tell her story publicly.

She began sharing her experiences and became involved in various immigration rights and social justice advocacy organizations. Arce serves on the board of the National Immigration Law Center, which is dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants.

She also helped found and now chairs the Ascend Educational Fund, a scholarship and mentorship program for immigrant students in New York City.

In September, Arce will release a young adult adaptation of her memoir titled “Someone Like Me.”

Changing the immigration narrative

One of Arce’s goals is changing public perceptions of illegal immigrants, and the language used to describe them.

“People think we come here to steal and to get on welfare,” she said.

“How could you think people would leave everything behind and often risk their lives to get here for that? You’d stay where you were if all you wanted to do was just get by.”

Arce hopes discussing her accomplishments helps highlight the contributions many immigrants make to the economy and society.

Arce is also frustrated by those who justify anti-immigrant stances as an attempt to protect U.S. citizens.

“What about the millions of American citizens who are family members of undocumented immigrants that are directly impacted by the threat of deportation to their relatives?” Arce asked.

On the same late-January morning Arce spoke to GO! Magazine, elected officials in Washington, D.C., had just reached another short-term funding agreement to end the brief government shutdown. She was frustrated that any decisions about the DACA program had been put off at least another three weeks.

“Every day, 122 DACA recipients lose their ability to work, drive, go to school and face potential deportation,” Arce said. “In terms of immediate policy, we need to address the situation for Dreamers, and a path to citizenship is really what’s needed.”

Arce also wants to see wider immigration policy reforms that would encompass the millions of other illegal immigrants in the U.S.

“A lot of people think they stay undocumented because they want to,” Arce explained. “But in reality, there’s no line they can join, no fee or fine they can pay to change their status.”