Julissa Arce speaks about her pathway to U.S. citizenship

On Thursday, immigrant rights advocate Julissa Arce delivered Claiming Williams Day’s morning keynote address on the plight of undocumented immigrants and her legal and spiritual journey toward becoming an American citizen. Born in Mexico, Arce was brought to the United States at age 11, where she settled in San Antonio. When she arrived in America in the mid-1990s, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) did not yet exist, and deportation was an ever-present threat throughout her life. Nevertheless, Arce rose in the world of banking and later became a successful immigration lawyer before ultimately gaining American citizenship in August of 2014.

They didn’t give me the sense that I could ever be an American,” she said. Only when she was brought to the ethnically diverse city of San Antonio did her perceptions begin to change. “I started to think that maybe someone who looked like me could be part of the makeup of this country,” she said. Still, adjusting to her new life in the United States was difficult. Arce only spoke five words of English when she arrived, and for many years she did not fully grasp the barriers imposed on her by her undocumented status.

A revelation came for Arce when she was told that she could not return to Mexico for her quinceañera, a cultural and familial celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday. According to U.S. law, if a person leaves America after having resided in the country illegally for more than a year, that person faces a 10-year ban from reentering the United States. If Arce had gone to Mexico at age 15, she would not have been able to return. Furthermore, when Arce applied to colleges at the end of high school, she was rejected from all of them solely because she did not have a Social Security number. She was only able to attend college when Texas legislators decided to allow undocumented students into state colleges in 2001.

Upon entering college, Arce was determined to achieve success, drawing inspiration from her parents. “They were convinced that in this country, as long as you work hard and stay out of trouble, you can achieve the American Dream,” she said. Arce saw financial success as a key component in achieving an American identity. After college, she immediately began working for Goldman Sachs, forging a Green Card in order to work at the company. Throughout her time at Goldman Sachs, Arce’s undocumented status filled her with fear. “Not a day went by that I didn’t think, ‘Today might be the day they find out,’” she said. When her father became ill, she agonized over whether or not to return to Mexico and face a 10-year reentry ban. “I packed my bag, I unpacked my bag. I went to JFK [John F. Kennedy Airport], I went back. And then my dad passed away,” Arce said. She never was able to see him before he died. It wasn’t until Arce got married that she was able to obtain a legitimate Green Card and, eventually, citizenship.

Throughout her talk, Arce emphasized the hurdles that exist for immigrants, both documented and undocumented. “This is a question I encounter often as I travel across the country giving lectures at colleges and universities: Why don’t ‘illegals’ get in the back of the line and do it the right way? The short answer is that ‘the line’ is a mythical place, a phrase used to deflect the need for immigration reform,” she said. She also emphasized the strict guidelines and long waiting times that exist during the family reunification process, sometimes referred to as “chain migration.”   

Arce attributed much of the current vitriol that exists in the immigration debate to right-leaning news networks like Fox News. At one point in the presentation, she played a series of clips of news anchors making insensitive and hateful remarks, including two who claimed that immigrants were “raping our women” and “packing heroin.” “I sometimes laugh when I watch this, but the truth is that there are millions of people who only watch Fox News,” she said. “The truth is that immigrants are not all just packing heroin. When I came to the U.S., I was packing my dolls.” Arce frequently appears on Fox News, particularly Tucker Carlson Tonight, because she wants to provide an alternative perspective on immigration for its viewers.

Throughout her life, Arce said, many have accused her of being “ungrateful” to the United States. “I am grateful to this country, but being grateful doesn’t mean never standing up and never speaking out,” she said. “Because I love America, I will reserve my right to forcefully criticize it.” Despite her criticisms, Arce appeared optimistic for the future. “What I do know is that immigrants continue to keep this country great and keep the American dream alive,” she said. Arce ended her speech with a plea for others to engage in the same activism that she has pursued. “I encourage you to reclaim not just Williams and not just your classroom, but [to] reclaim this country,” she said.

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