Name Change Ruling a Win for New York Immigrants

In October, the New York State Appellate Term, First Department, overturned a Civil Court judge and granted an undocumented transgender woman’s name change request. This is the first appellate decision clarifying that undocumented immigrants who are New York residents can get a court ordered name change.

The plaintiff was represented by Ez Cukor, staff attorney with NYLAG’s LGBTQ Project, which handles over fifty legal name changes each year on behalf of low-income LGBTQ and immigrant clients, and survivors of domestic violence. The New York Civil Liberties Union submitted an amicus brief in the appeal.

“After this decision, undocumented New Yorkers, like the plaintiff in this case, are able to change their names in court, and use their new legal names on official documents,” said Cukor. “The decision is especially timely given New York’s new municipal identification card, scheduled to launch early next year. Now more New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status and gender identity, will have access to accurate identification.”

The plaintiff in the case has been living openly as a woman – and using a feminine name – for twenty years. Her birth certificate, however, carried a distinctly masculine name. Like so many transgender individuals, whether they are citizens or not, this meant that she would have great difficulty in obtaining ID documents that reflect who she is.

Presenting a mismatched ID when applying for a job, receiving medical care and other services, finding housing, and gaining access to buildings can mean instant harassment, humiliation, or violence. At the very least, having identification with the wrong name puts many people in situations where they have to explain their gender history when it is neither relevant nor safe. Forty percent of respondents in a National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported being harassed as a result of presenting ID that did not match their gender identity and expression. Fifteen percent reported being asked to leave the place where they had presented the ID. Three percent reported being physically assaulted.

The appellate ruling demonstrates that while legal name change applications may appear straightforward, for many vulnerable communities including immigrants, the process can be complicated. And the implications of the decision extend beyond the transgender immigrant community. Naming conventions are not globally uniform. As a result, immigrants in the United States often have identification documents that list a name other than their preferred name or that contain naming inconsistencies, such as those due to multiple surnames, order inversion, and translation from one alphabet to another.