The reports started trickling in to online forums and local news, starting in 2017. From Reddit to The Kansas City Star, Washington to New York, the stories all followed roughly the same pattern: Bank of America sent a customer a notice demanding details about their citizenship—and if they refused to answer, their accounts were promptly frozen.
Outside the United States, this is a normal practice. Dozens of countries have agreed to the Common Reporting Standard aimed at combating tax evasion, and began collecting citizenship information as part of that effort in 2017.
But stateside, these reports have raised fears that banks could, at least theoretically, help the authorities identify and target immigrants. In the UK the banking industry has already been charged with collecting information on foreigners as part of a bigger plan to create a “hostile environment” for undocumented immigrants. Immigrants and advocates worry the United States could be next.
Bank of America explained that it was required to ask the question to comply with Treasury regulations. It’s true that American financial institutions must monitor their accounts for signs of money laundering, and comply with the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s economic sanctions on several countries, including Iran, Cuba, and Syria. Under a separate law, foreign banks must collect citizenship information from Americans, ostensibly in order to track down potential tax-dodgers.
But domestically, they are not required to collect customer citizenship information. In fact, Social Security numbers aren’t even required to open an account. Shortly after Donald Trump’s election, in December 2016, a senior counsel for the American Bankers Association said that “banks don’t track whether or not someone is legally in the U.S.”
Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of the financial inclusion nonprofit California Reinvestment Coalition, suggests that Bank of America’s policy “raises questions about the role banks will play in Trump’s America.” Writing in The Hill, Gonzalez speculates that “some banks are more than willing to carry out Trump’s agenda of creating a system where immigrants have fewer economic rights than others.”
The American Bankers Association declined to comment on specific institutions’ policies, but said that “strict regulatory requirements” aimed at deterring illicit activities justify requests for personal information. “Banks of all sizes are required to collect a range of information about their customers to comply with the Bank Secrecy Act of 1970 and ‘Know Your Customer’ standards,” says spokesperson Blair Bernstein. “Since 9/11, these strict regulatory requirements have steadily expanded.”