I Built A Career On Wall Street — As An Undocumented Immigrant

Photo: Vincent Remini.
Editor's note: Julissa Arce is a social justice advocate and author of the book, My (Underground) American Dream, which chronicles her experience as an undocumented immigrant building a career on Wall Street. Ahead, she shares an excerpt from her book that looks back on one instance in which her lack of legal status had a great impact on her life.

I wasn’t making the big bucks. Not yet, I thought. Still, as I sat there surrounded by unpacked boxes, drinking my ice-cold beer and watching TV on a humid July night, I thought about just how lucky I truly was.

I was sitting with Robert, my on-again-off-again maybe boyfriend, in his new apartment at 45 Wall Street in the heart of a reborn lower Manhattan. It was a gorgeous night in that promising summer of 2005. We’d both landed big-city jobs and rented apartments in the same building on one of the most famous streets in the world. So what if we’d driven all the way from San Antonio in a Penske truck to save money on airfare? So what if Robert’s roommate wound up making that drive with us at the last minute, the three of us all squished together and sweaty on a black vinyl bench seat, erasing all of my romantic road-trip dreams? So what if I was slightly annoyed that Mr. Third Wheel was cramping our space in that apartment in that moment, too? We were there. We were on our way.

I was just about to say something about how lucky we all were when I felt a sharp pain in my chest. I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe. A tingling feeling crept down my left arm.

'Guys,' I said. It was difficult to speak. I could barely gather enough air to make words. 'I think I might be having a heart attack.'

I tried to convince myself it was some sort of a head freeze.

Maybe the beer was too cold or I’d pounded it too fast. After a few minutes of silent agony, though, my palms started sweating and the pain in my chest became searing.

“Guys,” I said. It was difficult to speak. I could barely gather enough air to make words. “I think I might be having a heart attack.”

“What?” Robert said with a little laugh. “Get outta here.”

“No, really. My chest hurts, and my left arm’s all tingly.”

I was 22. I couldn’t possibly be having a heart attack.

It’ll pass, they said, and I wanted to believe them. But I felt like I was dying. Actually dying. The room closed in on me. Sweat started pouring out of every pore. I tried to breathe slowly and control the pounding of my heart, but I couldn’t.

“I really think I need to go to the hospital,” I said.

I couldn’t call 911. I was too afraid to call any government numbers, and Robert was just about the only person who knew the reason why.

Since the age of 14, I had learned to live an alternate reality, an imagined reality in which my immigration status didn’t matter.

He looked into my eyes and finally seemed to get it.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

It was late. Wall Street was dead. Miraculously, a cab appeared. We told the driver to take us to the closest hospital, which was NYU Downtown, on William Street. It was less than a half mile away, but getting there felt like an eternity. I saw the buildings arcing in on top of us the entire drive, as if we were passing through a giant tunnel in slow motion.

“Everything’s going to be okay,” Robert said, but I could see he was worried now, too.

At the hospital, I handed over my student ID and insurance card from the University of Texas. I’d graduated in May. I was pretty sure the insurance had expired, but that was all I had. I was sure I was about to collapse in full cardiac arrest on the hard, industrial tile floor of that ER and suffer the embarrassment of making a scene in front of Robert. Somehow I was more worried about making a fool of myself in front of him than I was about possibly dying.

The person at the desk took one look at me, wrote down the information, and didn’t ask any questions. The nurses hurried me in and hooked me up to a dozen monitors. One of them handed me an aspirin to dissolve under my tongue while another drew blood and began a long list of routine questions. “Are you on any medicine?” “No.” “Any chance of you being pregnant?” “No.”

Robert looked at me. “You don’t want to take a pregnancy test to be sure?” he asked.

I shook my head emphatically. “No!”

When the nurses left I shot him the side-eye. “What the hell, Robert?” I said, my voice muffled by a plastic oxygen mask. “Why would you say that?”

“Well, what if you are?”

“How can I be pregnant, Robert? We aren’t even having sex!”

We were almost back when it finally dawned on me. In less than two weeks, there was more than a good chance my secret would finally be exposed.

If I wasn’t already aware of how complicated our relationship was, he made it painfully clear to me in that moment. I should dump him, I thought. But how could I dump him? He was there in the hospital with me, in the middle of the night.

We didn’t talk much after that. I lay there for hours with doctors and nurses coming in and out until finally one doctor came in and told me that he had some good news. I wasn’t having a heart attack at all.

“What you’ve experienced is a major panic or anxiety attack,” he said.

I was confused. I wasn’t the type of person to panic. I wasn’t someone filled with anxiety. There were types of people I associated with panic attacks, and I was certainly not one of them.

“What could cause that to happen?” I asked. “Because it doesn’t make any sense that I would have one.”

“Sometimes they just happen,” the doctor told me.

I was confused. I wasn’t the type of person to panic.

He said I would be discharged shortly and left the room. I hated that answer. I hated uncertainty. I’ve always hated uncertainty. I like facts, which is why I’ve always loved math. There is no ambiguity in math. If he’d told me I’d had a heart attack and needed surgery, it would have been better than walking away without a concrete answer. “Sometimes they just happen” made absolutely no sense to me.

It was early morning by the time they discharged me, and I didn’t express any of my worry and confusion to Robert as we walked out the front door. I was too embarrassed, and we were both too tired to speak.

The old streets of downtown New York are particularly beautiful early in the morning, before the crowds and the cars take over. The edges of the cobblestones were just catching flickers of orange light from the rising sun as it poked its head up between the buildings, and I could hear birds chirping in that rare Manhattan quiet as we made the walk back to our shared building.

There was plenty of noise in my head, though. Why on earth would I have a panic attack?

We were almost back when it finally dawned on me. In less than two weeks, there was more than a good chance my secret would finally be exposed — the secret that could ruin my life, that could send me to jail, that could end my career before it ever began. The secret I’d been forced to keep since I was 14 years old.

Everything I’d done in my entire life, every accomplishment, every dream could disappear the moment I walked through those doors.

In less than two weeks, I would report to work and be fingerprinted for a building ID. I would have to show two forms of government-issued ID to start on payroll. I had already passed a background check, miraculously, but there would be more background checks, this time from government agencies to obtain my various financial licenses. It was all standard protocol.

To anyone else, that stuff might have been no big deal. The big deal would have been that they were starting their dream job at Goldman Sachs. To me, it was a big deal in a different way. I was two weeks away from walking into Goldman Sachs’ New York headquarters to start my coveted career as a financial analyst, and I’d been so focused on the details of the move and trying to figure out this whole Robert situation that I hadn’t stopped to consider the possibility that I might never make it past day one.

Since the age of 14, I had learned to live an alternate reality, an imagined reality in which my immigration status didn’t matter. Denial had become the only way I could move through life. But on that day, everything I had pushed down inside of me, the potential consequences of my secret, came rushing to the surface without warning.

The reality of my situation was suddenly undeniable. Everything I’d done in my entire life, every accomplishment, every dream could disappear the moment I walked through those doors.

Arce joined Refinery29 this week to discuss her experience and answer questions. Watch the full interview on our Vote Your Values Facebook page below:

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