Last Name First – No Joking Matter!

When dealing with the government, the result of using unofficial adaptations of one’s name for official documents can cause big problems in the immigration process. Surprisingly, immigration laws and regulations provide little guidance on the issue of the proper use of names in documents filed before the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Generally, when completing immigration forms, one’s full legal name should be used, including the full middle name, on all petitions and applications filed in connection with immigration matters. Intentionally using a false name is, of course, fraud, misrepresentation, or both. Penalties for committing fraud in connection with immigration matters are severe. Most often, however, those completing forms encounter difficulties with this issue not because of fraudulent intent, but rather because their names have changed, or because their names appear differently on various official documents. Cultural differences, where the first name and the last name are interchanged in certain countries, are another factor causing a great deal of confusion. In countries where the names are very long or difficult for Americans to pronounce, some people try to change their names by adding or dropping some letters as they try to make their names work in an “American” system. In this article, we examine the importance of being consistent with one’s name among various documents, the hierarchy of certain documents that help to verify the authenticity of a name, and suggestions on how to remedy possible inconsistencies to help in obtaining a faster approval on various immigration processes.

Importance of Using Correct Name on Immigration Documents

An individual should expect that, when different names are used on different documents, the government may have difficulty determining whether the documents reference the same individual, without further explanation. If the USCIS cannot determine a person’s correct name, the agency will not be able to complete a security check, and this will cause significant delays. If the full name on a person’s passport, visa, approval notice, green card, or other documentation needed for entry does not match, that person may have trouble being admitted to the United States, since the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) will need to be certain that the various documents all pertain to the same individual. Also, the Social Security Administration (SSA) may delay issuance of a social security card if the name on an approval notice does not match the name on the passport. Even state agencies can delay granting state government benefits if names are inconsistent. For example, one may not be able to obtain a driver’s license if the identifying documents have inconsistent names. The solutions to these problems are simple, but require planning on the part of the foreign national.

Ensure Consistency Among Official Documents

Foreign nationals who plan to seek U.S. immigration benefits should make an effort to establish consistency among official documents such as birth certificates, passports, police records, marriage certificates, medical records, visas, drivers’ licenses, approval notices, and all official documents filed with the various government immigration agencies. In addition, it is helpful if employment records, bank accounts, credit cards, and other forms of secondary documents are also consistent. It is up to the individual to be consistent with the name provided on all official documents. In most instances, an individual from any country should have only one legal name. If there is an error in the name used in official documents, it is best if the individual resolves the discrepancy according to the laws of that person’s home country and obtains official documents bearing the correct name. One will then be able to use that name on all immigration forms. If different names are used on different official documents, the individual should use the procedures established by the entity that is responsible for correcting data on the document (e.g., the embassy or government agency responsible for issuing passports; the department of records and vital statistics for birth certificates; the SSA for social security cards; courts for marriage licenses, divorce decrees, and police records).

If there is an inconsistency in the name as presented on the various official documents, it is best for the applicant to correct the name on each document. Should time considerations preclude this, the applicant should present evidence of the name change to the USCIS or CBP. This proof may include a formal court ruling if one exists, a marriage certificate, or another legal document showing the change of name, or other similar evidence.

Primary Documents Given Greater Weight

Generally, primary documents like the birth certificate are considered more reliable than secondary evidence like a person’s passport. A document created ten or twenty years before the person ever considered traveling to the U.S. is accorded greater weight and reliability as being authentic, like a baptismal record or a school leaving certificate. Any document created more than a year after birth is considered hearsay and will require corroborating evidence, such as affidavits from those present at the birth.

Affidavits to Attest to Birth or Marriage

If a birth certificate does not indicate the individual’s name, affidavits from those who were present at the time of the birth may be required to properly document the identity of the person. Similarly, for marriages that are not registered, affidavits from those present at the wedding ceremony and showing the relationship to the parties, will be required. Sometimes, the USCIS will require the birth or marriage certificate and will not accept the affidavits if the USCIS believes the certificates should be available. The name referred to in the affidavit should be consistent with the official legal name as used by the foreign national on all immigration and other legal forms.

Service Error can be Corrected

Sometimes the USCIS incorrectly transcribes or transposes an individual’s name. The result will be an immigration document bearing a name error. The USCIS provides forms for correcting such an error. Depending upon which type of immigration document contains the error (e.g., green card, naturalization certificate, I-94 document), a specific form is provided whereby the individual may request that the USCIS correct the mistake. For instance, the USCIS provides form I-90 to correct an incorrect name on a green card. No fee is required if the error is the fault of the USCIS. Form N-565 may be used to correct a name error on a naturalization certificate. It is advisable to correct USCIS errors to maintain consistency of one’s name on all formal documents as soon as the error is detected.

Explain Discrepancies in Documents

Some immigration forms ask whether any other names have been used. This is an opportunity to answer the question fully. Include a maiden name, any aliases, nicknames used on official documents, or any other name previously used, including those based upon cultural differences. Some name changes are anticipated and some are not. The USCIS generally provides an opportunity to explain the anticipated changes. For example, a change of surname after marriage is a traditional change of name. In this case, the surname on the birth certificate may be different from the surname on a current passport. Anticipated name changes may be explained on forms where prompted to provide “other names used.”

Individuals are well advised to provide clarification whenever there is an unexpected name change. These may include a new name that was suddenly used without explanation. These may also include instances where cultural traditions that diverge from those in the U.S. produce results that are different from those expected by immigration officers. For example, use of two surnames, one paternal and one maternal, is a common practice in some cultures, but it is not generally done in the United States. Taking the spouse’s name as a middle name is another example of an uncommon name change in the U.S. If such name changes have occurred, the individual should provide a written explanation together with evidence of any legal recognition of the name change.

More Names than Space on Forms

Generally, the USCIS forms only provide space for a first name (given name), middle, and last name (surname or family name). For some individuals, this paradigm does not work. For example, if an individual has multiple middle names, there usually is not sufficient space provided on the forms. Or, in some instances, one will have two last names based on cultural traditions. In these instances, it may be best to attach a sheet of paper to the immigration petition or application that states the individual’s full name and provides a brief explanation of which name or name combination is the first name, middle name, and last name.

Follow our Suggestions to Obtain a Faster Approval

Nicknames, abbreviations, and misspelled names should not be used on immigration forms, except in the column that asks for other names used. An individual’s full legal name should be used, consistent with all other official documents. Those who wish to avoid delays should remember that it is not the function of the government to determine why an individual has documents that bear different or inconsistent names. To avoid delays, the individual should ensure that the name on each official document is consistent before seeking an immigration benefit. It is said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Nowhere is this adage more applicable than when dealing with the government. We at the Murthy Law Firm are often asked questions regarding confusion surrounding a person’s name. Taking some of the steps suggested here will likely save months or possibly years of potential delay and aggravation when filing for an immigration benefit.

Originally posted 17.Oct.2011, this MurthyDotCom InfoArticle is still a relevant reminder for our readers.


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