Julissa Arce is using her story to change the immigration narrative. (julissaarce.com)

The American dream has become a harder sell in America. But Julissa Arce still believes that everyone in the United States should have the right to work hard and prosper. Arce is not your typical rags-to-riches story. She came to the United States from Mexico with her family 22 years ago on a tourist visa. After that visa expired, she became an undocumented immigrant, attending high school in San Antonio where she excelled in math. Later, she graduated with a degree in finance from the University of Texas as one of the first Dreamers, then worked for seven years at Goldman Sachs building derivatives for the private wealth division, even though she didn’t have papers. Now she is an American citizen fighting for immigration reform. Her memoir, “My (Underground) American Dream,” is to be released this fall, and her inspiring life story may soon become a television series. The 33-year-old social justice advocate spoke with Truthdig about her journey, the struggle for equality in America, immigration reform, how to curb racism and more. You used to work at Goldman Sachs, but at the same time, you were an undocumented immigrant. As an executive at the investment bank, you were one of the corporate elite. As an undocumented immigrant, you were considered “less than American.” How did that experience shape your identity? One of the things about being undocumented is that you do spend so much time trying to blend in and trying not to stand out, and trying to quote-unquote assimilate. I very much felt like I lost a lot of my identity in trying to fit into this definition of what it means to be American. It absolutely shaped my identity and who I was. I think one of the biggest things, when it was all said and done, I had tried to fit into this narrow definition. I had tried to blend in and not stand out. But at the same time, I was trying to stand out. I was trying to move up the corporate ladder and move ahead. That definitely created a lot of identity issues, and the things I identified with and the country I identified with. It’s definitely a very psychological thing that you go through, being undocumented. It’s more than just not having legal papers. It becomes an all-encompassing, all-consuming experience to be undocumented. What lessons could America and Americans learn from your experience? We can learn to expand our horizons and to be more open-minded and to realize we all have preconceived notions, whether they are conscious or not. When it comes to what it means to be American, I didn’t become an American citizen until 2014. But I felt American a long time before then, and I contributed to this country for many years before then. Whenever people think of undocumented immigrants, you immediately think of what you see on television. And so much of the coverage around immigration is shaped by this rhetoric of “immigrants are criminals,” “immigrants are people who want to take things away from us,” “immigrants are quote unquote illegal.” I think that those definitions clearly didn’t fit me, and they don’t fit a lot of people. What we can learn is that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the issue of immigration. What does the American dream mean to you now? It means that I have the right to speak up and to try to change the system that doesn’t work for people like me. I used to think the American dream meant being wealthy, having status. But for me, the American dream is no longer just about having money, getting into a different socioeconomic status. Now, it goes beyond that. It means having the right to speak out and stand up for myself and for my community. Can you describe what it felt like to become an American citizen? It’s really hard to put into words. It was a very emotional experience. As I said, I felt American long before I ever held papers that said I was. Definitely, the day of the ceremony, when I became a citizen, is very meaningful to me. It meant that I didn’t have to be afraid to be deported anymore. I didn’t have to be afraid of being kicked out of my own country. It gave me a lot more security in some ways. In other ways, I realized that having this piece of paper doesn’t change who I am. It doesn’t necessarily change the way people see me. Some of these things aren’t going to change until we culturally change as a country. Until we start expanding our definition of what it means to be an American. Nonetheless, becoming a citizen was a very beautiful, memorable experience. Immigrants still are considered “less than human or American” by some people. How can we change that narrative and better humanize the undocumented? That’s a very important question. We can dehumanize the issue, and we can talk about it in the negative way that some people do because we don’t see immigrants as human beings. We think of immigration in terms of numbers and statistics. We forget that immigration is ultimately an issue about immigrants, and immigrants are humans who have dreams and ambitions and aspirations just like everybody else. The biggest thing to humanize the issue is to put faces to the issue. To share our stories. When we think about those 11 million people, we need to start thinking about the fact that this is happening to 11 million mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors who make up that number we throw around all the time. Sharing stories and contextualizing the issue in those stories is going to help to humanize the issues facing immigrants and for people to start viewing them as people.
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