Immigrants who come to America have changed their names to help them assimilate since the nation's beginning. Fashion designer Ralph Lauren was born Ralph Lifshitz. Donald Trump's grandfather changed the family name from Drumpf. John Del Signore was formerly Hamilton Hollingsworth. But when it comes to the NYPD, the process of assimilation is more of a process of elimination in their hunt for terrorists. The AP reports that the department has been closely tracking Muslims who change their names.
It turns out the NYPD monitors everyone in the city who changes his or her name, but they're paying extra special attention to those with Arabic-sounding names or who come from Muslim countries. "Police run comprehensive background checks that include reviewing travel records, criminal histories, business licenses and immigration documents," according to the AP. "All this is recorded in police databases for supervisors, who review the names and select a handful of people for police to visit."
State court officials say they've been sending the NYPD notifications about name changes ever since 2008, and they don't see the harm in it because this information is already public. But the NYPD's rules prohibit "opening investigations based solely on activities protected by the First Amendment," and, as the AP notes, "Federal courts have held that people have a right to change their names and, in the case of religious conversion, that right is protected by the First Amendment." In August, the AP published a bombshell investigative report about how the NYPD's counterterrorism tactics have gone further than what the FBI allows, and they're probably illegal.
The AP also learned that the NYPD has been throwing in American names to the list of those they run extensive checks on, so they won't be accused of racial profiling. But at least two-thirds of the names they've picked for extensive background checks could be read as Arabic-sounding. "In the past, you changed your name in response to stigmatization," says Donna Gabaccia, director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. "And now, you change your name and you are stigmatized. There's just something very sad about this."