“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.
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