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How Immigrants can Pursue a Legal Name Change


Naturalization is the ideal time for immigrants to legally change their name.

I recently heard one of our citizenship clients was asking if he could legally change his name at his citizenship interview. This didn’t surprise me too much since I have had many clients opt to change their names during the naturalization process and if that is what they want, it is an ideal time to do it. What surprised me though was the new name he has selected –   ”Lucky.” Didn’t’ he just go through one of the coldest, most difficult winters on record along with the rest of us who live in the Northeast? How anyone could come out of the worst Februarys EVER and want to change his name to “Lucky” not only surprises me, but it also inspires me.

For some new citizens, part of their naturalization process has included going through a legal name change. Their reasons tend to vary but often include they wanted to adopt a more American sounding name or desired to shed a long name they had as a result of customs from their home countries.  Some have also been misnamed when registering in a refugee camp and take this opportunity to correct that mistake.  But occasionally I have come across a few clients who seem to throw caution to the wind and seize the moment to make a significant change in their lives by chosing a new name just because.  I’m not sure what “Lucky’s” reason is but I’m hoping it’s the latter because it’s such an uplifting name.  So the answer to “Lucky’s” question was yes, he can still legally change his name.  The option to change a name during the naturalization process is easy and it is an option that is pretty much available until the judicial ceremony takes place. It is important to note that it does have to be a judicial ceremony though; in order for this legal formality to take place, a judge must be present.

There is often some confusion around whether or not children who derive citizenship from their naturalized parent can legally change their name when they apply for their citizenship certificate. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option. As I stated above, in order for a legal name change to be granted, a judge must be present.   For the citizenship certificate applicant, there isn’t a swearing-in ceremony conducted by a judge because there is no judicial ceremony. It is a process that only involves a USCIS officer who reviews the N-600 citizenship certificate application then denies or approves it.   Because of this, I greatly disappointed a newly naturalized client the other day who returned for help filing for citizenship certificates for her minor children (who derived citizenship through her) and who was brimming with excitement because they were finally going to be able to legally change their names.

This client’s teenaged sons had a relatively long last name (8 syllables, in fact) that was a result of their home country’s customs.   They were  looking forward to a much shorter, simpler name.  Their mother had a difficult time accepting going through a legal name change wasn’t part of their process in deriving citizenship no matter how hard I tried to explain the reason (no judge is present in this process). It was a hard concept for her to accept but once she understood she returned home, discussed this with her sons and they decided keep their last name.


A judge has to preside over a legal name change.

However, if they had wanted their names changed, they would have had the option of doing it like everyone else – through the court.  Information regarding changing a name in NY can be found here for children and here for adults, as well as the name change application.  The steps they would have had to follow are basically this:

  1. complete the downloaded application and take it to the County Clerk’s Office with $210 (the filing fee)
  2. wait for the Clerk’s Office to file paperwork with the court and contact them via mail that this step is complete
  3. place an ad in a newspapers publicizing the new name
  4. let the ad run its course and then provide the Clerk’s Office with an affidavit proving the ad has been run
  5. wait for a judge to review the application and affidavit to ensure everything has been done in accordance with NY law

This process is certainly more complicated than the one “Lucky” will be going through but it is certainly doable and should take between 1-2 months.    Speaking of “Lucky,” I feel fortunate that I’ll be able to witness the steps it’ll take for his new name to become official; a name that is often associated with 4 leaf clovers, winning the lottery, and good karma. Since I’ll be accompanying him to his interview, I’ll be there when he signs a name change form and if all goes well, I’ll also witness him being called to the front of the court by his new name at the start of his oath ceremony. I have to admit, I love his spirit and how he is willing to seize the moment by choosing a name that speaks for itself.  It’s also a name that’ll surely bring a smile to anyone’s face whose path he crosses the moment the name change becomes official, including the judge’s.

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep


Enjoying the Fruits of Our Labor

Yang photo_

Yang Chu naturalizing as a US citizen

I recently attended the annual citizenship ceremony held at Cortland’s Supreme Court and witnessed several of our clients, including Yang Chu (pictured left), take the oath of allegiance.  As I first arrived I was filled with a deep satisfaction when I saw how many of them were already seated in the rotunda waiting to take the final steps of their path to citizenship.  And I felt grateful when I saw Yang Chu sitting front and center with her family because I knew what a great accomplishment it was for her to acquire the knowledge and language skills needed to naturalize. It was a beautiful ceremony and as it was wrapping up, I was reminded of the saying (or is it a psalm?) about enjoying the fruits of our labor.

The process to becoming a US citizen can certainly be laborious and the culmination of that hard work, which is then celebrated at the naturalization ceremonies, does remind me of biting into a perfectly ripened piece of fruit. They are both meant to be savored and every aspect of them are enjoyable. The labor that is required to learn all of the knowledge needed to naturalize for Yang Chu and others like her –  those who came to the US knowing very little English and who knew even less about American history,  geography, and our political system  –  can be quite daunting.  The bar for Yang Chu and other non-citizens to become naturalized is set quite high.  But fortunately for her, the labor was divided and she had someone to share the burden with. Her tutor, Ginny Schumacher, or as Yang Chu often refers to her, “Number 1 Teacher,” made the goal of attaining citizenship achievable.


Ginny teaching the citizenship prep class

Over the years, Catholic Charities has partnered with Tompkins Learning Partners (TLP) to get clients ready for the citizenship test and Ginny is one of their tutors. Thanks to her, students can begin learning incredible amounts of information in order to pass the civics test and prove they can comprehend the material that is included in the citizenship application. Ginny, who has been a TLP tutor for 5 years, worked over 1 ½ years with Yang Chu to prepare her for the test and interview. At first they met weekly for 2 hour classes and then doubled their time together as her citizenship interview appointment drew closer.

When tutoring new students, Ginny begins by teaching them simple greetings, colors, numbers, and even has them compare their homeland flag to the US flag.   While her lessons include phonics, vocabulary, syntax and conversation, Ginny says she also uses those early lessons to observe the students. “The whole time, I am trying to determine their readiness to come every week and their eagerness to become American.” She not only observed how Yang Chu was someone who genuinely wanted to be a US citizen but also saw her as someone who strived to be more “American” with her English.

Yang TLP

Yang Chu attending one of Ginny’s classes

For Yang Chu, learning the English required to pass the citizenship test was a huge undertaking. Even though she had attended ESL classes at TST BOCES prior to starting the citizenship prep classes she still had a steep learning curve. When asked to describe the learning process Yang Chu recalled how “many of the words I was learning looked similar; distinguishing one from another and memorizing all of them appeared to be a ‘mission impossible’ for quite a while.” But even though the material was difficult, Yang Chu still had Ginny, whose teaching skills and patience moved the process along.  There was mutual respect between the teacher and student and definitely a strong bond.  Ginny described Yang Chu as a “terrific student” and Yang Chu described Ginny as “the most amazing teacher I have encountered in my life.”

Once Yang Chu’s interview date arrived she traveled to Buffalo and Ginny stayed behind in Ithaca. But Ginny received a phone call before the day was over and was elated to hear Yang Chu’s news of: “Teacher! I pass! I pass!! Thank you, Number 1 Teacher!” She had just taken a giant leap forward on her path to citizenship; a path that could have been much more difficult if it hadn’t been for Ginny’s labor of love style of teaching.

The memory of Yang Chu being sworn in as a new citizen is something I will cherish a long time and it was somthing that still reminds me of the saying (psalm?) about enjoying the fruits of our labor.  But it’s even more special when her daughter translated how excited Yang Chu is to cast her first vote in 2016 and how she feels “becoming a US citizen was one of the most prideful days in my life and a moment of immeasurable joy, honor, and privilege.”

*a special thanks to Yang Chu’s daughter, Hongnan, for helping out with translation*

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep


Immigrant Services Program Video

This past spring, one of our ISP interns, Pete Quandt, produced a video for us that highlighted the services we provide through the Office for New Americans (ONA) grant.  Pete, a rising senior at Ithaca College who majors in documentary studies and production, spent several weeks shooting at various locations, interviewing our clients and staff members for the video.  These photos were taken of Pete (pictured right) and Leroy Farrell (his assistant producer) at the citizenship ceremony this past February in Cortland where we had several clients naturalize.

pete post 1

As you will see in the video, Pete and Leroy also shot footage at Tompkins Learning Partners’ Citizenship Prep classes and TST BOCES Adult ESL classes in order to capture the depth of services we provide through this grant.  Additionally, he visited Center Ithaca where he interviewed the owners of Bella Pizza and the Tibetan Momo Bar (whose Momo’s were featured in Laura’s “Taste of Ithaca” blog post) who have been provided entrepreneur support services through the ONA grant.

Pete – if you happen to be reading this post, we want to again say thank-you!

Hope you enjoy the video.

Why Taking the Oath of Allegiance Might be Bittersweet

Earlier this month, several clients we provided citizenship services for were sworn in as U.S. citizens at a ceremony held in one of Ithaca’s Middle School’s gymnasiums.  One of the most significant and profound parts of these ceremonies is when the new citizens actually naturalize as they take their oath of allegiance.  It often signifies the end to a long journey and once they relinquish their green card, all that is standing between them and their goal of becoming naturalized as a U.S. citizen, is reciting the oath.  The following video clip depicts part of the oath that was taken at the Ithaca ceremony:

Pledge Video Edited from ISP Blog on Vimeo.

The full oath recited by the immigrants is as follows:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law, that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

This moment is often described by the new citizen as something that is very joyous.  However, for some, it can also be bittersweet.  I have spoken to clients who said the serious commitment required by them to forever renounce their allegiances felt like somewhat of a betrayal to their former homeland.  I’ll never forget when one of my friends, a former Haitian refugee, described how thrilled she felt at her naturalization ceremony but also said she fought tears the whole way home.  She felt tremendous pride because she was the first member of her family to naturalize as a U.S. citizen, but also felt a profound sense of guilt because she felt like she was being disloyal to her former country and to her grandparents, who remained living there.  I remember her describing how Haiti was a country she had a deep sense of love for but felt forced out off because of political persecution.  I actually traveled with her to Haiti after she naturalized and the love for her former country was certainly palpable.

So, when I congratulate new citizens at the end of the ceremonies I attend, I always keep in mind that even though they might be immensely proud of becoming a U.S. citizen,  inside they might be feeling a bit conflicted like my Haitian-American friend was.  They might have left a home country behind that they still feel an allegiance to.  They also might have family members who remain there and they no longer share the same nationality.  I think everyone I congratulate would describe becoming a U.S. citizen as a milestone and a very joyous occasion, but for some, it might also be something described as bittersweet.



Path to Citizenship

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of attending a naturalization ceremony in Cortland where several of our clients were sworn in as US citizens.  These brave souls not only had to face some pretty harsh weather in order to get to Buffalo to start the citizenship interview process, but then they also had to pass an exam that tested their ability to memorize 100 questions about US civics before they could drive back home.  One of those clients, Wei Wei, was interviewed during Buffalo’s worst snowstorms of the year.  The forecasters were announcing up to 3 feet of lake effect snow and even though the thruway was about to close, she and her husband somehow managed to go there and back so she could complete the interview process.  She was successful and I sat next to her as she took the Oath of Allegiance at Cortland’s naturalization ceremony.

Wei Wei reciting the Oath.

Wei Wei reciting the Oath.

Catholic Charities has been providing free citizenship services since 2010 in Ithaca.  During that time I have gone to over 20 naturalization ceremonies held in Ithaca, Cortland, and Syracuse.  Even though the ceremonies are very similar, they are also unique.  For the most part, all of them have included either a local youth choral ensemble or string orchestra that performs American the Beautiful.  A flag that has flown over the US capital is randomly given out to one new citizen.  Buffalo’s Homeland Security officer, Jack Phetteplace, writes down the phonetic spelling of the immigrant’s name on a post-it so he doesn’t mispronounce it during the ceremony. A local florist is acknowledged for donating a rose or carnation for each new citizen.   And family members are holding up cell phone cameras documenting the event from beginning to end.

The unique part is usually what the immigrant brings to the table.  It is often the path they took to become citizens that is distinct and very individualized and for our clients who naturalized in Cortland, this was certainly true.  For example, one client’s path started when she came to the US on a fiancé visa, another’s immigrant visa was approved that had been filed by her son, and yet another received her green card through her US citizen spouse.  One client’s application for refugee status was approved by the UN Higher Committee of Refugees and he adjusted his status to green card holder one year after resettling in the US, and another’s employer filed a petition for her to get a green card because she was an exceptionally skilled worker.  While their paths varied, they were all now naturalized as US citizens.

New US Citizens, Bing and Tatiana

New US Citizens, Bing and Tatiana

As immigration reform once again appears in the headlines, it is important to pause and think how much our community benefits when all of us are fully engaged as citizens.    We need to recognize that the path to citizenship is something much more personal than a debate in immigration reform.  It has a starting point and an ending that can be very similar or unique.  And sometimes, this path can also involve braving one of Buffalo’s worst winter snowstorms of the year.

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep