Disclaimer: This is legal talk, not legal advice. Laws vary by jurisdiction and change often. Some of this may not apply to you. It is presented without warranty. It may contain errors or omissions. You must do your own research.
Some transgender people who are not American citizens come to the United States for opportunities or for personal safety. There are a number of legal options for coming to the United States.
- Non-immigrants (people who plan to leave)
- Immigrants (people who plan to stay)
You are often required to have your identity documents reflect your legal name and gender. It is sometimes possible to change them once you are here, but that can cause issues if you plan to return to your country of origin, depending on their laws.
If you need to make changes to these documents, it is best to speak with an immigration lawyer about how to proceed.
In American English, alien is the legal term for any person who is not a citizen or national of the United States. Foreign national is an unofficial synonym.
United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS)
Most immigration and work visa matters are handled by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of DHS. Below are the most common options used by foreign nationals.
A wide range of visas are available for immigrants and nonimmigrants:
- Temporary workers
- Permanent workers
- Students and exchange visitors
- Temporary visitors for business
Employment Authorization Document (EAD)
Also known as a work permit, this USCIS document authorizes an alien to work in the United States for a set time, usually one year. It is a card with your name, photo, and work eligibility expiration date. An EAD allows you work in the United States legally for any employer.
In addition to a standard EAD, some people may quality if they meet other requirements:
- U Nonimmigrants
- Some survivors of crimes can get this. For trans people, this is often foreign nationals who have been victims of domestic violence or human trafficking in the US.
- Certain kinds of students who require permission before working in the US, like F-1 or M-1 students
To change name or gender on this document, you need to complete Form I-765
Permanent Resident Card
Also called a Green Card, this allows you to live and work permanently in the United States. You can get one a number of ways, including:
- Through certain family members who are citizens
- Through certain kinds of work
- Immigrant investors
- Immigrant physicians serving underserved communities
- First preference (extraordinary abilities)
- Second preference (exceptional abilities and jobs needing advanced degrees)
- Third preference (skilled workers, professionals, and unskilled workers)
- As a Special Immigrant
- Religious workers
- Juvenile crime victims
- People from Iraq or Afghanistan who assisted the US
- Employees of certain international organizations or their family members
- People granted asylum over 1 year ago
- People admitted as refugees over 1 year ago
- U Nonimmigrants and T nonimmigrants
- A number of other options listed on their site
If you became a US citizen after birth, you may apply for a new document if your name has been changed by either:
- Marriage, divorce, or annulment
- Court order
You can also change the gender marker if you meet all current requirements.
Documents that can be changed include:
- Certificate of Naturalization
- Certificate of Citizenship
- Repatriation Certificate
- Declaration of Intention
A reader writes:
Prospective citizens should be aware that US Certificates of Naturalization contain name, place and date sworn in, date of birth, former citizenship, height, marital status and, yes,unfortunately and irrelevantly, sex. It is almost impossible to get a certificate of naturalization changed once it has been issued.
According to the Williams Institute, there are an estimated 267,000 undocumented LGBT immigrants in the US. Of those, about 15,000 to 50,000 are transgender. Our current system can make it harder for trans people seeking:
- family recognition and unification
- employer verification
Transgender undocumented immigrants face high levels of discrimination and violence and are often victimized by traffickers. Among those who have interactions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), there is even more danger once they are detained:
- assault and sexual violence
- sex-segregated facilities
- inadequate access to trans health services
- solitary confinement
US Department of State (travel.state.gov)
US Citizenship and Immigration Services – USCIS (uscis.gov)
- January 19, 2017: Revision of Adjudicator’s Field Manual Subchapter 10.22 – Change of Gender Designation on Documents Issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (PDF)
- EAD application: Form I-765
- Green Card replacement: Form I-90
- Naturalization/Citizenship Document replacement: Form N-565
Immigration Equality (immigrationequality.org)
- America’s leading LGBTQ immigrant rights organization: “We represent and advocate for people from around the world fleeing violence, abuse, and persecution because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status.”
National Center for Transgender Equality (transequality.org)
- See their overview on Immigration
Williams Institute (williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu)