Julissa Arce, a star at Goldman Sachs and undocumented

Sitting at her desk at Goldman Sachs, Julissa Arce is doing her best to keep it together. It is September 2007. Her father is dying in Taxco de Alarcón, a small and hilly city in Mexico, and she has just hung up after a call from her sister with bad news. Arce stands and leaves the row where she and her colleagues create derivatives and market them to rich people.

She walks down the hall, opens the bathroom door, and locks herself in a stall. “Do not be anxious about anything,” she says under her breath, repeating Philippians 4:6. “Do not be anxious about anything.” Then she straightens, washes her face, and returns to work. Her banker colleagues cannot understand why she won’t get on a plane to see her father. Arce tells them that her family will keep her updated, and she might be leaving tomorrow.

There is no crying in the private management floor. The overachievers at Goldman Sachs are not 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 this month, 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 couldn’t go to see her family because with her bogus papers she wouldn’t have been able come back. Arce was 11 when she moved to San Antonio from Mexico. Despite arriving with little English, she joined the basketball, softball, cross-country, and dance teams, the student council, a Renaissance club, and two honours societies within a few years. She is still intense.

She likes The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and How to Win Friends & Influence People and is eager to explain, without irony, why they are illuminating. She does CrossFit and can hold 150 pounds behind her head. “You have to have a very A-type personality,” she says about weightlifting. “This workout, it’s not going to win. I’m going to win.” She did not have to adjust to Goldman Sachs’s culture of undisguised ambition because she embodied it. A few weeks into her first summer there, as an intern in 2004, she arranged to have coffee with a managing director whose team she admired. When she followed up with a hand-written thank-you card, the managing director told her to expect good news. A sharp kind of dread sank in after Goldman offered her a full-time position.

She was afraid of what could happen when one of the world’s most sophisticated companies examined her fake green card and Social Security number, took her fingerprints and ran a background check. But Goldman never did discover her secret. It was 2005 and a good time to become one of the 23,000 employees of Wall Street’s most profitable securities firm. “I was like, sky’s the limit,” she says. “I’m in.” Arce’s parents left Taxco regularly to sell jewelry in Texas.

They got her a tourist visa so she could join them, and on one trip the family simply stayed. She went to a Catholic school and took to maths right away, eventually placing in the honours track. She remembers a classmate raising his hand to ask how a Mexican could possibly keep up. Arce was 14 when her visa expired. “I knew what that meant,” she says. “I became undocumented.” Desperate to stay in the country, she pitched her parents on a plan to have her friend Tiffani’s family adopt her. The Arces would not go for that. 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 University of Texas at Austin wrote to say her application had been reviewed and she had been accepted. She majored in finance. The equations “made sense to me”, she says.

Antonia Bernal, a leader of the Hispanic Business Student Association that Arce joined, describes her as vibrant and driven. When the group handed out awards one April, it named her its Future Millionaire. Arce’s parents moved back to Mexico in 2001, and she took over their food cart business. Every Friday she rode a Greyhound bus 128km to San Antonio to sell funnel cakes. Every Sunday she returned to Austin with money for rent and school. When the cart lost its spot, Arce could not land a new job with her expired tourist visa. And she could not stay in college without a job. Getting a fake green card turned out to be simple. She confessed her need to a suite-mate, who connected her to her boyfriend, who introduced her to a woman, who asked her to come to her home. She handed over the money, had her picture taken, and about two weeks later had the forged documents. They worked. Arce used them to land customer service work on nights and weekends for a debit card company in Austin and interned for a Major League Soccer team.

Then she saw a presentation about summer positions at New York banks. The pay could be $10,000. The chances of joining Goldman Sachs, 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 knowing that nine of the company’s 10 executive officers are men. Arce got a 2004 internship through a nonprofit which places Hispanic and black students into summer roles at banks. She liked it at Goldman, where she helped to put together presentation. She was asked to return to the firm full-time after graduation in 2005. In New York her career got off to an extraordinary start when she was invited to join a new team that built derivatives for the private wealth division’s clients. Arce became a rookie analyst reporting directly to a managing director.

But Arce was scared to go to work every day, worried that her undocumented status would be uncovered and she'd be escorted out. Perhaps the biggest reason Arce’s secret went undiscovered was that no one was looking. At this altitude, people assume that their friends belong. Mark Campbell, who had been hired at the same time, says he knew Arce was from Mexico, and it never occurred to him to question her citizenship.

“It seemed to me that she had it all figured out,” he says. “You just sort of assume everything is fine.” 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. She put it in her closet and tried to forget about it. “It was terrifying,” she says. More letters arrived; she also shelved them. “You sort of have to force yourself to live in this alternate reality, just pretending like it does not really exist.”

After her father died in 2007, she thought about taking some of her things on a flight to Mexico and not coming back. Her boyfriend told her he thought getting married might be a solution. “I hope this is not a proposal,” she remembers telling him. “Because if it is, it kind of sucks.” It was a proposal, and she said yes. “In retrospect,” she says, “I don’t think we were ready. But I did love him.” Her college friend Bernal, who hosted the small wedding in her building’s yard and was a witness and photographer, remembers the ceremony as short and happy. By 2011, Arce was making $300,000 to $400,000 and had been promoted to vice president. She replaced her fake green card with a real one from the US 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. She started a blog whose first posts counted down her last days at Goldman Sachs. “I am nervous in an excited kind of way. In the way that I imagine a QB is nervous in a rivalry game,” she wrote. Less than a week later she was gone, writing: “Now is time to go ask more questions and hopefully find more answers.” Arce visited her family in Taxco, flew to Europe on a Mexican passport, and paddled down North Carolina’s Roanoke River. She thought she could start a website for arranging impromptu vacations, then a business to get community funding for small ventures; both fell through. She and her husband, who moved away for a job, separated.

“Life is all about adapting to change, moving when things are shaken up,” she wrote on her blog. In 2012 a coffee with a friend working at Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch turned into a job opportunity, and she took it. The role was not what she’d thought project management and compliance strategy. When her boss stopped looking her in the eye, she says, she knew what was going to happen. She was let go last May. She may have gone back to banking if she had not seen a 2013 movie called Documented. It follows Jose Antonio Vargas, who was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and came out as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 New York Times essay.

“My life on film I was just so inspired by it,” she says. “I basically stalked him.” Arce is moving to California this month 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 favour of “undocumented”. When asked for comment on Arce’s story, Goldman Sachs sent a statement from the chief executive Lloyd Blankfein: “Would not 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?” Goldman now verifies information from job applicants against government records.

In August, Arce arrived at a courthouse in Lower Manhattan to become a US citizen. She struggled to speak and had to take a breath before reciting the Oath of Allegiance. Her passport came in the mail in September. She got tattoos after quitting Goldman, including a line linking moles on her left arm. “I guess I just always felt everything happens for a reason, and I just have to connect the dots,” she says. “And the one here says Redeemed.” She crooks her arm up by her head. “I always sleep like this, so when I wake up every morning it’s the first thing I see. It reminds me that no matter what happens, no matter how I feel, I have been redeemed.”
Isabella Cota Bloomberg News

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January 17, 2018, 9:56 pm
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