According to the Post, Kansas-born Josh Collins received an unusual-looking letter purportedly from the bank asking about his citizenship status. He said he thought the mailer was spam and ignored it—only to have his account frozen a few weeks later.
After Collins’ story was first reported locally, he and his wife received messages from others who had been locked out of their accounts for weeks, the Post reported.
Tennessee native David Lewis says he received the same suspicious-looking letter as Collins. In an interview with the Miami Herald, Lewis said he has maintained an account with Bank of America for about 30 years. In the letter, the bank inquired about his citizenship, income, and social security number.
When he called Bank of America, he was told his account would be frozen if he did not fill out the forms. That phone conversation led him to cancel his account, he said. “One would think a national bank would be careful about looking stupid after Wells Fargo,” he said, referring to Wells’ having been accused of creating millions of unauthorized accounts.
Proof of citizenship is not required to open a bank account in the U.S., according to Stephanie Collins, a spokesperson for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the federal agency that supervises branch banking. Banks are merely required to identify and report suspicious transactions and maintain and update customer information, she said. Banks have not received any new instructions to collect more information about customers.
In response to an inquiries from the Miami Herald, Bank of America spokesperson Carla Molina said she could not comment on specific cases. But she said there had been no change in how Bank of America collects information from customers, including citizenship, in at least a decade. The bank attempts to contact customers before the change the status of their bank accounts, she said.
“There’s nothing new,” Molina said.
Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of the California Reinvestment Coalition, told the Herald she disagrees.
“We work with consumer groups and financial counselors in immigrant communities across [California] and the country,” she said in an email. “This is new. We have Bank of America customers who we’ve spoken to who have never been asked this before last year. If they have this asked of them before they can show us proof.”
In recent months, her group has received several complaints about being asked for proof of citizenship; almost all have come from Bank of America customers, she said. An article in American Banker magazine also highlighted Bank of America as the one institution specifically facing backlash for its policies.
Spokespersons for Wells Fargo and Citibank both said they may ask about customers’ citizenship to maintain compliance with know-your-customer and anti-money laundering rules. They said no new policies asking for citizenship status have been put in place.
Molina, the Bank of America spokesperson, said the new customer complaints may simply be a response to heightened sensitivities to the debate over immigration in the U.S.
But Gonzalez said the bank’s scrutiny has created a chilling effect in immigrant communities already feeling pressure from the Trump Administration’s crackdown on foreign-born residents.
“Fear is gripping these communities,” Gonzalez said. “It’s like walking into a grocery store to buy milk and being asked for your citizenship at checkout—banking is one of the core aspects of daily life in this country. To be faced with this question in order to do banking seems as un-American as you can get.”
Gonzalez’s coalition has now launched a petition, “Tell Bank of America: Stand with immigrants,” that accuses the bank of abetting the Trump Administration’s crackdown on immigrants, and calls on the bank to to “protect immigrants’ civil rights and stop collecting information about the citizenship status of its customers.” The petition has received more than 61,000 signatures since Aug. 29.
Dan Hernandez, a Broward County native of Cuban heritage now working as a TV writer in Los Angeles, said he had his business account suspended by Bank of America in December 2016. When he asked why, he was told he was under suspicion of doing business with Cuba. His corporation was called Cuban Missile Inc.—”Cuban Missile” has been his nickname since childhood.
“I started screaming that this was racist,” he said. “Like, did you go through every company that had ’Jewish bagels’ in its name, or how about calling someone with ‘Korean BBQ’ to see if they’re doing business with Kim Jong Un?”
He eventually Tweeted at the bank’s social media account—and had his situation resolved within 45 minutes. He says he feels lucky that he was able to leverage that platform and his status to get a relatively quick fix, because he is certain others do not have the ability to do so.
“It was extremely scary,” Hernandez, 34, said. “I knew I didn’t do anything wrong, but it puts doubt in your mind. A bank can crush your life for arbitrary reasons and never tell you why.”