Several weeks ago, Ignacio Villegas Arellano’s family wheeled him into the Fresno Convention Center. The 100-year-old waved a tiny American flag and placed a hand over his heart to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He was now, for his second century on this Earth, a U.S. citizen.
Then, a little over a week later, his wife, María Guadalupe Correa de Villegas, 94, went to the local immigration field office and received her naturalization certificate, too. The couple, who have been married almost 75 years, waved larger flags and posed for a photo in front of a Statue of Liberty mural.
Speaking through an interpreter last week because neither speaks English, the Villegases said they were “very happy” to officially be citizens of the country they’ve called home for decades.
All but one of their nine children live in the United States. They have 44 grandchildren, 84 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren. They had never applied for citizenship before because they thought the test would be too difficult.
But, although they are in the United States legally, they became afraid of what Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was saying about wanting to deport Mexican immigrants. They didn’t want to risk spending their remaining years away from their family.
“We’re now like you,” María Villegas said. “We’re all together.”
Their story, first reported by Juan Esparza Loera for Vida en el Valle, a California weekly publication for the Latino community, is rare. A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman said that only a handful of people older than 100 become citizens each year out of the approximately 700,000 immigrants who are naturalized.
“Each and every naturalization we do at USCIS has a story behind it – and we enjoy them all – but there is something very special about working with people who have lived a full life and make it a priority to become U.S. citizens,” said Sharon Rummery, spokeswoman at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “It is heartwarming.”
The California Secretary of State Alex Padilla greeted them at the ceremony and commended their “courage,” according to Vida en el Valle. Padilla, who is a Hillary Clinton surrogate, told them to use their newfound rights to vote.
Villegas, a farmworker in Florencia, Zazatecas, Mexico, who said he collected corn and beans and potatoes in Mexico, started traveling between there and California when he was 45. Then, because their children decided to make a life in the United States, they decided to stay permanently.
Because they have lived here more than 20 years and are older than 65, they were allowed to take an easier test in their native language. To have been eligible for citizenship, they would have had to be permanent legal residents.
“They came for family and for the freedom to be with their families because so much of their family is here,” said Roberta Nilsson, 45, a friend of the family. “Now they know the family will be together.”
Nilsson, who went to school with their grandchildren, said she is in awe of how the family members prioritize taking care of one another. They pitch in financially and with their time, she said. The elder Villegases are able to live at home because relatives are always around to help.
“It’s something that is so sadly lacking to see a family with that loyalty and unity,” she said. “America needs more families like that.”
Marcos Martinez, a student at the Berkeley School of Journalism, translated during the interview.
(Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that they could have been on a visa. But to get citizenship requires legal permanent status.)