Bank of America

Is Bank of America Really Cracking Down on Undocumented Immigrants?

Has the bank joined the immigration crackdown, or is this just a case of bad customer service?


Stephanie Keith/REUTERS/Newscom

"Bank Of America Faces Backlash After Freezing Accounts Over Citizenship Questions," blares the HuffPost headline. "Bank of America Really Wants to Know Your Citizenship Status," writes Splinter. "Bank of America freezing accounts of suspected undocumented citizens: report," says The Hill.

So is Bank of America trying to stop undocumented immigrants from accessing their money? The short answer is probably not.

All three of those stories are based on a Miami Herald report claiming the bank is "freezing accounts of customers suspected of not being U.S. citizens." The story is built around the experience of Saeed Moshfegh, an Iranian Ph.D student studying in America. Until recently, Moshfegh says he had to show proof to the bank that he was in living in the States legally. Then, earlier this month, the bank rejected his documentation and told him he needed to give them a different form. Moshfegh's funds were frozen. And though they eventually gave him his money, bank officials wouldn't let him keep the account.

He wasn't happy. "It's not the business of Bank of America to shut down someone's account," Moshfegh tells the Herald. "Immigration officers are different from Bank of America—with a bank, I would like to feel respect [and be treated] how they treat other customers. But they treat me as an alien."

The Herald also spoke with Dan Hernandez, a TV writer of Cuban heritage whose business account was suspended in 2016 because Bank of America thought he might be doing business with Cuba. They thought that because his business was called Cuban Missile Inc., after his childhood nickname.

In July, The Kansas City Star reported a similar case. Josh and Jessica Collins are both American citizens who'd been Bank of America customers for almost two decades, so when Josh got a weird-looking letter from the bank asking if he was a citizen, he ignored it. Not long after, their account was frozen. According to The Washington Post, which did a follow-up story on the couple, other Bank of America customers have similar stories.

Many immigration advocates are convinced these instances are proof that Bank of America is helping the Trump administration crack down on undocumented immigration. A petition launched by the California Reinvestment Coalition calls on Bank of America to "stop asking customers about their citizenship status." The petition, which has garnered more than 63,000 signatures, notes that "history will remember which banks stood by immigrants and which ones helped Donald Trump attack them."

"Fear is gripping these communities," the coalition's Paulina Gonzalez tells the Herald. "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."

But there's a simpler explanation for these stories: corporate incompetence.

Bank spokesperson Christopher Feeney tells Fast Company that the institution "periodically" looks at its customers' accounts to determine if more up-to-date information is necessary. Due to Treasury Department sanctions against other countries, Bank of America asks customers about "country of citizenship" in order "to ensure adherence to these economic sanctions laws." But Feeney adds that "we do not ask for proof of citizenship."

Feeney's statement could explain why Moshfegh and Hernandez had their accounts frozen. The U.S. has been sanctioning Iran since the 1970s, and its embargo against Cuba has been in place since the 1950s. It's not hard to believe that in its efforts to comply with Treasury Department regulations, Bank of America simply messed up.

Besides, if the bank is working with the Trump administration to target undocumented immigrants, why do most of these cases involve either American citizens or legal immigrants? The case of Josh Collins particularly stands out. If you're cracking down on undocumented immigrants, why question the citizenship of a local news photographer in Kansas who's been banking with you for almost 20 years? If Bank of America doesn't want undocumented immigrants to access their money, someone needs to bring us such a story from an actual undocumented immigrant.

If the accusations turn out to be true, it wouldn't be the first time a bank worked with the feds to target allegedly undesirable people. (Remember Operation Chokepoint?) But in these instances, there's just no evidence to suggest Bank of America is guilty of anything more than bad customer service.