Stories of immigrants shorn of complicated foreign names and newly christened Bob Smith or Mary Jones by officials at Ellis Island in years past are said to be apocryphal – but even today, the immigration process sometimes results in a mangled moniker.
In Afghanistan, Abdul Rasikh’s wife, Zulaikha, went by only one name, as is fairly common in that country.
But when they first filled out the paperwork for visas to come to the United States, apparently the lack of a surname caused a bureaucratic glitch. The end result was a visa listing Zulaikha as her surname, with her first name unknown, or FNU. Their daughter Sana was likewise identified as FNU Sana, while their son’s compound first name was arbitrarily split into a first and last name.
These names followed them from visa to green card and made their way onto all subsequent legal documentation in their new country. Rasikh, his wife and three children immigrated from Afghanistan about two years ago.
Rasikh said he and his family got help from the Sacramento Public Library in filling out the forms. After that, they filed in the civil division of Sacramento Superior Court. Their next step was to publish a notice of the change in a local newspaper for four weeks in a row. Next there will be a hearing. Once the court makes its determination, then they file the paperwork with the Social Security Administration to get the name changed on their green cards.
The cost to file for a name change is $435, but those who cannot afford it might be eligible for a fee waiver, according to court documents. Legal notice in newspaper ranges from $35-$295, and it costs $25 to have the court order certified, said Sacramento attorney Heather Mayer.
The time it takes to work through the entire process depends on the county and the time of year, as courts are closed for several days during the winter holidays, Mayer said. In Sacramento, it generally takes three to four months from the time documents are filed to the court hearing.
Courts run a background check on the filer and will deny a name change to anyone in prison, on parole or required to register as a sex offender, or who is believed to be trying to commit fraud, Mayer said. The most common valid objections to name changes are a parent or guardian objecting to a child’s name being changed or a person with the same name who wishes to prevent identity theft.
“Other, less common reasons for a denial would be attempting to change your name to that of a number/roman numeral/symbol or that of a domain/website,” Mayer said in an email.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the FNU snafu is common to immigrants from places where it is customary for people to go by a single name, as in many Asian countries.
But it doesn’t appear to be the most common reason people seek a change of name.
An average of 86 people per month filed for a name change in fiscal year 2015-2016 in Sacramento Superior Court, said public information officer Kim Pederson.
A brief survey of petitions filed in the past month indicated people change their names for a number of reasons, including transgender people changing their names to fit their gender identity, women reclaiming their maiden names after divorce, parents changing the name of a child from the name of a parent not involved in the child’s life, and children who want to carry the name of a person who raised them, rather than that of their biological parents. There is a separate process in the family court for women reclaiming their maiden names, Mayer noted.
Some reasons are more unusual.
One family filed to change the name of their child from Sheun to Shayo, because Sheun means “go away” in an African language.
One petition explained that the filer hoped to shed memories of childhood abuse along with the old name. Another person filed for name change after discovering that the name on his birth certificate was different than the name he’d always gone by.
Rasikh said it’s worth the trouble. Besides the convenience of legal names, his family looks forward to being united in name in their new home.