Who says the American Dream is dead?! It certainly isn’t for Julissa Arce, an illegal immigrant who managed to rise through the ranks of Goldman Sachs without even having a green card. Despite not being an American citizen and having false identification, Arce landed a lucrative job at the financial firm and decided to share her inspirational tale with Bloomberg:
The overachievers at Goldman Sachs aren’t all the same. Some have been valedictorians, or Navy SEALs, or the sons or grandsons of the company’s bankers. Some will stop at nothing to amass a fortune; others are patient. And at least one was an undocumented immigrant. Arce, who turns 32 in March, owed her bright career on Wall Street to fake papers bought for a few hundred dollars in a stranger’s living room in Texas. Over seven years at Goldman Sachs, she rose from intern to analyst, associate, then vice president, later becoming a director at Merrill Lynch. When her father died in Taxco hours after the 2007 phone call, she didn’t leave to see her family because with her bogus papers she couldn’t have come back… She didn’t have to adjust to Goldman Sachs’s culture of undisguised ambition because she embodied it.
In her senior year of high school, Arce sent out college applications with the Social Security box blank—and got rejections. Just as she was graduating in 2001, a new law made it possible for undocumented Texas students to attend public universities at in-state rates. Five weeks later the director for admissions at the University of Texas at Austin wrote to say her application had been reviewed and she’d been accepted.
She majored in finance. The equations “made sense to me,” she says. “There was always a right answer. There wasn’t anything ambiguous about it. There was so much ambiguity in my life that I really appreciated that.” Antonia Bernal, a leader of the Hispanic Business Student Association that Arce joined, describes her at the time as vibrant and driven. Arce hadn’t seen many Hispanic men wearing business suits before joining the club, and she still does a Hollywood swoon when she describes them. Meetings with successful women were just as important. “I could be ambitious and go-getter without seeming greedy and aggressive,” she says. “There are all these amazing jobs, and there’s all this money to be made.” When the group handed out awards one April, it named her its Future Millionaire.
The most influential document at Goldman Sachs may be a list of 10 business commandments written by co-head John Whitehead, who died this year at 92. “Important people like to deal with other important people. Are you one?” No. 8 asks. “Don’t waste your time going after business we don’t really want,” says No. 1. By putting the Goldman thirst for competence, connection, rank, and respect into words, Whitehead set the strike zone for hitters at the bank, including ones born long after he retired in 1984. The chances of joining them, with 350 summer analysts chosen by the investment banking unit from 17,000 applicants in 2013, are worse than the odds of getting into Harvard University. For those who do make the cut, the competition—for assignments, pay, power—only intensifies. Women do this battle knowing that 9 of the company’s 10 executive officers are men.
Arce got a 2004 internship through a nonprofit called Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, which places Hispanic and black students into summer roles at banks. She liked it at Goldman, where she helped put together presentations for existing clients and searched for new ones among the names of yacht owners.
In 2008 the global financial system was on the verge of collapse, Goldman’s clients were jittery, and the firm was losing money. When Arce opened her mail one day that July, she found a letter from the IRS asking about her tax filings. An operations manager for a unit called Input Correction wanted “more information to process the return accurately.” She put it in her closet and tried to forget about it.
“It was terrifying,” she says. More letters arrived; she shelved them, too. “You sort of have to force yourself to live in this alternate reality, just pretending like it doesn’t really exist.”
Arce’s anxiety would spike when a colleague looked at her weirdly, or if she was suddenly called into an office. “This is it,” she always thought. One day, distracted, she made a mistake on a Japanese trade for a client. She thought her career might end.
Other times she was too busy to worry. She thought it was taking too long to get promoted to associate, and as soon as that came through, she went to work on becoming a vice president. And she started dating someone she had met in college. She liked that he was strong and good at pool, and she felt safe around him, she says.
By 2011, Arce was making $300,000 to $400,000—she won’t give the exact amount—and had been promoted to vice president. She replaced her fake green card with a real one from the U.S. government after the wedding. She was legal, elite, and rich. She was also unhappy. The only thing stranger than going from selling funnel cakes in Texas to equity derivatives in New York was how vacant she felt.
Three-and-a-half years after quietly chanting her anxiety prayer in a locked bathroom stall, she took a piece of paper that listed her bonus into the ladies’ room. “I made it to this place that I always thought would get me everything I wanted,” she says. “But I remember leaving and going to the bathroom with my little letter that said how much money I was being paid and just feeling so empty.”
Arce is moving to California this March as the development director of Define American, a nonprofit founded by Vargas. The group pushes for rights for undocumented immigrants with projects including a campaign to have newspapers drop the term “illegal immigrant” in favor of “undocumented.”
The group faces a backlash against rights for immigrants. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who signed the bill that allowed Arce to attend college, told a Republican forum in Iowa this year that “if Washington refuses to secure the border, Texas will.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz asked his fellow Republicans to “show me where you stood up and fought” an executive action on immigration President Obama announced late last year. (In an awkward coincidence, Heidi Nelson Cruz, the senator’s wife, worked in the same Goldman Sachs unit, private wealth management, as Arce.)
Making hundreds of thousands of dollars on Wall Street didn’t protect Arce from fear. “There is still the stigma that what we did is shameful,” she says. “I’m tired of being ashamed for pursuing my dream, for climbing up the ladder, and for having success.” When asked for comment on Arce’s story, Goldman Sachs sent a statement from Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein: “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?”
Ain’t that America–an illegal immigrant shamelessly using affirmative action to land a job exploiting average Americans while committing fraud and tax evasion on a massive scale. Let’s give those mestizos amnesty!