The Undocumented Investment Banker

It has to let more like Julissa Arce in.

Photographer: John Moore/Getty Images

Julissa Arce personifies a lot about what makes America great -- and what's not so great about its immigration policy.

Arce came to the U.S. from Mexico at age 11 already possessed of brains, ambition and a powerful, relentless work ethic. To support herself as a student at the University of Texas, Arce rode a bus 80 miles from Austin to San Antonio each weekend to sell funnel cakes. Through a nonprofit that helps place Hispanic and black students at banks, she gained a summer internship at Goldman Sachs, which hired her after she graduated in 2005.

"Over seven years at Goldman Sachs," writes Max Abelson in Bloomberg Business, "she rose from intern to analyst, associate, then vice president, later becoming a director at Merrill Lynch."

No amount of success, however, could ease Arce's fear of being exposed as an undocumented immigrant and having all her hard work end in ruin. 

Arce is now 31 and a U.S. citizen. She will soon take a job working for a nonprofit group that advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

But make no mistake: Ruin is precisely what legislation passed by the House and stymied this week in the Senate would bring to other striving immigrants with stories similar to hers. That legislation would block President Barack Obama's plan to enable millions of settled undocumented immigrants to avoid deportation and obtain work permits. It essentially mandates deportation for as many undocumented immigrants as the federal government can process -- whether they came to the U.S. as children or adults.

The question is, to what end? Would deporting such people improve the U.S. economy? Numerous studies indicate just the opposite. Would dividing families improve U.S. communities? Not likely. What broader public goal is served by sending the mother of a U.S. elementary school student back to her home village in El Salvador? By deporting a college student who was raised in the U.S. and is fully American in speech, culture and patriotism but lacks a green card?

The U.S. is a nation of laws, and any nation that fails to enforce its laws invites chaos. At the same time, society and culture change, and so must laws along with them. Any nation that fails to recognize and adapt to complex human realities risks cultural and economic stagnation.

Calls from Washington to secure the border are good politics. And in an age of terrorism, border security is also good government. But Arce and millions of others crossed that border long ago. They already live in the U.S. With families. With jobs. With dreams. With Americans. Devaluing their contributions and undermining their ambitions doesn't make the U.S. safer. It makes it foolish.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.