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Foreign born? Bank of America might just freeze your account

Foreign born? Bank of America might just freeze your account
[Photo: Flickr user Mike Mozart]

Every day the experience of being a non-citizen or person of color in the United States seems to be getting more Kafka-esque. For example, today an article in the Miami Herald described an influx of legal non-citizens in the country discovering their bank accounts frozen for no apparent reason.

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A man named Saeed Moshfegh had been studying in Florida for seven years and used a Bank of America account for his finances. Twice a year, he was asked to produce certain documents to prove his legal status. Then, Bank of America asked for different documentation that he could not provide. When he was unable to, the bank froze his account. Moshfegh reportedly couldn’t pay his rent as a result.

Apparently, this was not an isolated incident. Other Bank of America customers around the country who were questioned about their legal or citizenship status also found that they were unable to access their accounts, according to the report.

The bank told the Miami Herald that it has not changed its policies regarding documentation. I reached out to the bank for comment as well, and will update if I hear back. (Update: see below.)

But this is just another example of the hurdles that non-citizens–or even those suspected of being non-citizens–experience every day. Yesterday, news broke that the United States is denying citizens’ passports because they were suspected of faking birth certificates. In other words, legal citizens who were born in this country are now in limbo because their own country claims they forged their documents. Many of these people are non-white and are being put in immigration detention centers and even being threatened with deportation.

Such developments show how bleak things have become in this country. Citizens are facing increased hardships, simply because the U.S. believes they may be foreign. And companies like Bank of America aren’t helping.

You can read the full Miami Herald story here.

Update: Bank of America’s Christopher Feeney told me the following statements:

All banks, by federal law, especially banks with globally active customers, are required to have appropriate risk-based procedures in place to know their customers, including maintaining complete and up-to-date records for all customers.

To fulfill this legal requirement, banks periodically review customer accounts and obtain from customers any additional, or more current, information necessary to ensure that account information is accurate and so that banks can comply with laws and regulatory requirements, including those related to the U.S. Bank Secrecy Act or enforced by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).

The Treasury Department’s OFAC enforces economic and trade sanctions against certain foreign countries and individuals. One of the reasons we ask about country of citizenship and dual citizenship is to ensure adherence to these economic sanctions laws. It is important for banks to know the country of citizenship of its customers because banks, by law, must comply with sanctions that restrict or prohibit activity in or with certain sanctioned countries or persons.

The regulations are not designed to determine immigration status. In fact, citizenship status is not even considered when establishing a bank accounts. Also important, we do not ask for proof of citizenship. In fact, we maintain relationships with customers of many different nationalities.

Our goal when maintaining customer records–as required by federal law–is to minimize customer inconvenience while also ensuring we have in place the strong controls needed to mitigate the risk of financial crimes. This is neither new or unique to Bank of America.

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