Immigrants who've become U.S. citizens have countless stories about how and why they came to this country, and what motivated them to take this significant step.
We talked to three suburban residents who were among the 25,311 residents of Illinois who filed citizenship applications last year. Applications are up across the country this year, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Taking the citizenship oath was a deeply moving experience, the three said. All were recognized during a recent ceremony in Elgin and all are from Mexico, like about 29 percent of foreign-born residents of the U.S., according to census figures.
"God gave me this citizenship," Woodstock resident Elvira Guillermina Marcial said, "because this country really helped me so much."
Leticia Rojas, 43, of Elgin, said she became a citizen because she craved the right to participate in the political process.
"I wanted all the benefits and the responsibilities of citizens," she said.
Rojas and her husband emigrated to California 20 years ago in search of better job opportunities. The couple from Mexico made the journey across the Arizona desert, walking for hours under the cover of night, just three weeks after they got married.
There was no work in her hometown of Moroleon, in the state of Guanajuato, other than temporary stints at a clothing factory an hour away, Rojas said. "We wanted to look for a better way of life," he said.
After their first daughter, now 19, was born, they moved to Elgin to join her in-laws. They had two more children, now 18 and 11.
Rojas, whose permanent residency was sponsored by her husband, who was in turn sponsored by his parents, worked for a decade at an electronics factory in Algonquin and was laid off in the wake of the 2008 economic recession.
She got a cosmetology degree three years ago and works part-time at a hair salon near downtown Elgin. "I like my job very much," she said.
Her only regret is that she still doesn't speak English very well, she said.
She started taking classes in English as a second language through the Literacy Connection in Elgin to prepare for her citizenship test, and has continued even though she's been a citizen for a year.
"If there are other Hispanics that speak Spanish (around), one prefers to speak one's native language. It's easier," she said. "But I think that's what I have missed. Now I am making an effort."
Marcial, of Woodstock, was wooed to the United States in 2007 by her ex-husband with promises of love and a great life.
He worked hard at it -- calling her three times a day for three months -- and persuaded the college-educated Marcial to leave behind her insurance company in Mexico City and plunge into a new life in Woodstock, where he lived.
But her dreams were shattered when he turned out to be abusive, she said.
She left him four years later with the help of Turning Point domestic violence shelter in Woodstock, where she arrived with only her personal documents and $20 in her pocket, she said. She now volunteers at Turning Point.
Marcial got her permanent residency via special immigration provisions for battered spouses, children and parents under the Violence Against Women Act. She didn't want to go back to Mexico because she was too ashamed, she said.
"I couldn't believe that after all I had achieved (in Mexico), this happened," she said. "I felt so stupid."
To get back on her feet, she looked for ways to earn money however she could -- cleaning houses, making piñatas, baking Mexican flan desserts -- and sometimes walked for hours to get to work, she said.
She eventually was hired as a live-in baby sitter and gradually saved enough to buy a car and rent her own apartment. She took English language classes at McHenry County College and got her GED, which made it easier to find work here, she said.
Now she works in housekeeping at Centegra Memorial Medical Center in Woodstock and owns a small cleaning company, where she also does jobs herself.
Getting her U.S. citizenship made her feel incredibly proud and grateful, she said. And it wouldn't have happened without the encouraging words of a girlfriend in Mexico during a particularly difficult time, she said.
"I told her I was desperate," she said. "She told me, 'There are millions of people who risk their lives to be where you are. There are millions of people who suffer to be there.' She told me, 'You have to fight. You are very courageous. You can do it,'" she said. "That really affected me."
The United States is the only home that Jose Alberto Alfaro, 24, of Round Lake, has ever truly known after he was brought here by his family when he was just a few months old.
His parents, who are from the Mexican city of Morelia in the state of Michoacan, wanted a better life for their children, to whom they taught the value of hard work, Alfaro said. His father worked in strawberry fields in California and now owns his own landscaping company in Lake County.
Alfaro said his decision to become a U.S. citizen was prompted by his parents' fears that, despite his status as a permanent resident, he still might be at risk of deportation in these uncertain political times.
He also realized it would be cheaper to pay the one-time $725 citizenship application fee than to renew his residency every 10 years. And being a citizen makes him eligible to work for the federal government, he said.
"It's something I definitely put off for a long time," he said. "I don't want to say I didn't see the importance of it, but I was more caught up in other things."
Alfaro graduated from Round Lake High School and earned an associate degree from Lincoln College. He is taking classes at College of Lake County and works as assistant manager and sales rep for Bill's Pizza and Pub in Mundelein.
His three younger siblings were all born in the United States. His father got his U.S. citizenship a few years ago, and his mother is in the process of applying, he said.
Alfaro took his citizenship oath Aug. 1 in a ceremony that made him feel immense joy not just for himself, but for all the other new citizens around him, he said. "My face hurt from smiling so much," he said.
Looking back, Alfaro said, he should have become a citizen years ago. It stung not to be able to vote in the last presidential election, he said.
"Maybe one vote might not be a lot, but there's people who don't vote," he said. "If less people vote, my vote counts more."