Immigration & Name Changes: From Ellis Island to Today
For many people arriving in America during the 19th or early 20th century, immigration meant more than a new home — it also meant a new name.
A name change was a very common part of the immigration process 100 years ago, but US immigrants rarely change their names today — even though USCIS makes changing your name fairly easy!
What’s in a Name?
Many immigrants chose to change their names — or had their names changed for them — when they came to the United States.
Many immigrants chose to change their names to something they believed was more “American-sounding.”
The reasons for choosing new names were simple — to help themselves assimilate into a new culture and to make any stores or businesses they founded more inviting. Immigrants with less “exotic-sounding” names were also less likely to be discriminated against.
Also, undocumented immigrants began to go by different names to avoid detection by officers.
Immigrants also had their names altered post-documentation at Ellis Island. Once in America, immigrants typically had their names entered into official records by those who were already English-speaking (i.e., teachers, landlords, employers, judges etc.). This could explain a lot of small name changes over time.
In addition, name changes weren’t always part of the legal immigration process. The documentation of name changes has only been required during the naturalization process since 1906.
When Did the Name Change Process Decline in Popularity?
An article by The New York Times noted that there was no real precise time when the name change process that was somewhat synonymous with immigration started to fall off. It has certainly become more scarce in the last few decades as trends indicate people embracing their multicultural roots.
In the earlier part of the 20th century, many people went through the name change process — not for immigration, but for show business. People with Italian or Jewish-sounding surnames were worried that the movie-going public would not embrace them. Now when budding stars change their names, it is usually for brevity’s sake and not for fear of discrimination in their industry.
Immigration & Name Changes in the Present
While the practice is no longer the standard, US Citizenship and Immigration Services makes it incredibly easy for a prospective US citizen to change his or her name.
On the N-400 Application for Naturalization, all you have to do is check a box and write your new name on the line beside the box. At your naturalization ceremony, you will be awarded a Certificate of Citizenship with your new legal name on it!
While many choose to keep their names, some people still choose the immigration process to change their names — but usually if they are newly married or if their birth name proves to be incredibly hard to pronounce or spell.
Of course, once you are awarded your new legal name along with your citizenship, you still must update records like your Social Security and your driver’s license or ID cards, as well as your bank account and any credit cards. It adds a lot of hassle to the otherwise easy process of changing your name through immigration!