Tag Archives: name change

American Flag

Here in America

“Here in America, we don’t use a maiden name as a middle name.”

Her emphasis was on “America”. Reminding me where I was and who was in charge. As though the huge flag behind her and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services badge on her arm wasn’t enough. With her declaration, she scratched out the name I’d printed on the document. The name I wanted.

“You can add it to the last name and hyphenate it,” she told me, “but you can’t replace your middle name.”

“But….” I protested, “Everyone I know did it that way after they got married. I don’t want my old middle name.”

“You can go through the court for a name change. Did you go to the court?”

Of course I hadn’t. I thought my marriage certificate was enough, as it had been for everyone else I knew. I dug through my folder to find it for her.

“That’s not good enough. You need to do it in the court. What’s your middle name?”

 She moved her hand to the top of the form and wrote my middle name where she wanted it to be. A few more quick scratches of her pen, and she added the name I wanted to the “aliases” section. I have aliases now. Like a spy. A criminal.

She sighed. Shook her head. “You’d be surprised how many people come in here and think they can just change their names like that. It doesn’t work like that. You need to go to the court.”

I couldn’t argue with her. You can’t argue with immigration officials when they have your future in their hands. You can’t risk upsetting someone on the wrong day and having your petition denied. You go along with what they say. You do as they ask. You apologize for being so ignorant, for being in the way, for doing everything so obviously backwards, even though you followed every instruction to the letter. They are right and you are wrong.

wrong way

I want to be angry. I want to be offended that I was told not just that I’d made a mistake or misread instructions, but that here in America, things are done differently. Because I know that’s ridiculous. Besides the fact that America isn’t a homogeneous mass, I can point to dozens of personal friends and professional acquaintances who have done exactly what this woman tells me is not allowed. Maybe it’s the truth; maybe there’s some fine print somewhere that says I can’t change my name with USCIS on the basis of a marriage certificate alone. But this woman dismissed me outright when I protested. She held fast to an approved script, instead of listening to me and seeing me as a person who needed help understanding the process. I am Canadian. I am white. I speak flawless English. I can only imagine how much more degrading it must be to face these people if you’re wearing a veil or struggling to find your words in your second or third language.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Civil servants aren’t known to be the most caring and understanding of individuals, and working with the public can harden and desensitize you until you see everyone as a problem instead of a person. But it is wrong for the words “here in America” to be used by a member of the agency that every single immigrant to this country will need to work with. I am already in America, contributing to America’s economy, helping save American lives with my work. Yes, I am an alien here, but I am here.

When I told this story to friends, I was reassured by some that things will improve once I become naturalized and acquire American citizenship. That thought is why I’m hurt and saddened by this experience, and not furious as perhaps I should be. To think that once I cross that line and pledge allegiance and get a tiny American flag to wave, my slate will be clean and it will be like none of this ever happened. I’ll be the exact same person before and after that ceremony, but everything will change. I don’t know if that’s what I want. Do I want to be one of them? But I’m also tired of fighting. What does my name matter, anyway? If they say my middle name has to stay, maybe I’ll just keep it.

“But it was alright, everything was alright, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.” — George Orwell, 1984


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To Those Who Wait

I arrived at the office five minutes after it opened, and every seat was already taken. People who arrived too late and lost the race for a chair were leaning against the back wall, clutching document folders and little paper tickets. I said good morning to the armed security officer at the door, who surprised me by smiling and responding in kind before handing me a little paper ticket of my own. That was the last happy moment in my day.

I found a bare spot between a poster offering the services of Spanish sign language interpreters and a pictogram instructing me not to take photos with my phone, and I joined the sullen group holding up the wall. I glanced down at my ticket. C306. The TV screen bolted into the corner displayed a row of blinking numbers: B46, C394, G30. A voice called out G31, and the screen changed. An old Chinese woman in the middle of a row stood and waved her ticket as she gathered her purse from under her chair. I wanted to hear her call “Bingo,” but of course she didn’t. She turned and inched unsteadily past the line of politely shifted knees to reach the aisle leading to the clerk’s window. As she exited the row, a young man entered it from the other side to take her empty seat.

The numbers crept upwards in small groups. A few Bs were called. Two Cs and a handful of Gs. Then nothing. I glanced up to find the lone clerk sitting at her window and staring out towards the door. Soon, the smiling security guy came in holding a huge set of keys in one hand and pink tennis shoes in the other. He handed both to the clerk, who then changed her shoes and laced them up before calling G35.

The waiting-room musical chairs continued, with vultures swooping on abandoned seats before they could cool back to room temperature. An elderly man came unsteadily through the door with an orthopedic cast on his foot, and sighed as he scanned the full rows of seats. Only after eye contact could no longer be avoided and public shaming was imminent did the young woman with the Kindle stand to offer him a seat. The only smile in the room, besides the one on the security guard now grooving to his iPod, was George Takei’s on the poster across the room.

No, George, it wasn’t.

C304 and C305 must have had better things to do that morning, because they weren’t around to answer when the clerk called them. After almost two hours, it was my turn. I approached the window with a smile, hoping honey would set the right tone for the interaction. 

“Good morning,” I began, putting my documents on the counter.

“Ticket and application, please.” Her eyes didn’t leave her screen.

I gave her my crumpled C306 and my application form #SS-5, filled out and printed from my computer for maximum legibility. She impaled C306 on a metal spike and scanned my application form.

“Name change? You have paperwork?”

I took my marriage certificate from its envelope and handed it to her. Anticipating her next move, I opened my passport to the photo page and extended it towards the window just as she barked “ID.” She looked at my passport photo, then at me. She flipped the passport over, read the all-caps CANADA across the front, and snapped it shut.

“Are you a US citizen?” She handed my passport back to me.

“Not yet,” I replied. “I have a green card.”

“Let me see it.”

“The card itself expired last week,” I explained. “I have a document here extending it while they process my renewal. This is the official paper that says I’m allowed to live and work in the US.” I showed her the document that my immigration lawyer had rushed me by overnight courier.

She glanced at it and pushed it back to me. 

“Green card,” she repeated. “I need to see your card.”

I sighed and pulled it from my wallet. She took it from me, leaned it up against her computer monitor, and began typing. Her computer beeped. She looked up at me.

“We can’t use this. It’s expired.”

I blinked. 

“I… I know. That’s what this other document is for. It extends my green card until they can process the renewal.”

“Sorry, the card is expired. You need a valid card.”

I resisted the desire to connect my forehead with the desk in front of me. I held the extension notice out again.

“The guy I spoke to on the phone said that this counts as an official document from immigration and I could use it for a name change,” I explained. “I’ve been married almost three years now and I would really, really like to use my married name. I had to wait to renew my green card, because otherwise the fee is almost $600 to change it. This paper is all I get for now – I won’t have a physical card for another year, maybe. Are you sure you can’t use this?”
She must have sensed something in my voice, because she softened. She took the paper back out of my hands and laid it on her desk to read it more carefully.

“Well, it’s got your alien number on it. That’s the same as your green card. Let’s see if the system will accept this as an expiration date instead.”

“I appreciate this so much,” I told her. “It means a lot to me that you’re trying to help.”

She typed away for a moment, and then frowned.

“Honey, I’m sorry,” she said, giving me back all my documents. She turned her screen so that I could read it. “Looks like they don’t have your name changed with immigration yet, see? We can’t do anything until that system has your new name in it. I’m sorry.”

I nodded and thanked her again for her effort. I folded my documents neatly into my accordion folder and left the Social Security office, the same person I was when I arrived.

Note: Those of you who follow me on FB or Twitter may be looking for a post about the “Here in America” comment. I’m still working on that post and hope to have it ready by the weekend. 


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