The past couple of weeks have seen a series of stories exposing some of the more fascistic powers our country has implemented—specifically, big banks’ ability to freeze the private assets of their customers, based on little to zero evidence of wrongdoing. American citizens and immigrants working and learning in America legally have run into this totalitarian practice, and the news has been reported, tucked underneath the rest of the Trump/Republican Party garbage fire. The Miami Herald reported a little over a week ago about Saeed Moshfegh, an Iranian man studying for his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Miami. At the beginning of August, Moshfegh found that he could not access his Bank Of America account. Although he had money in the account, Bank of America told him that his immigration status was in question, so it could not release his funds.
Moshfegh had been providing proof of his legal status in America every six months, a process he called “onerous.” Unfortunately, even though Moshfegh—a man who had been in the country for seven years legally, and had recently married an American woman—this wasn’t enough.
That Thursday, Moshfegh went to his local branch near South Miami. He was told that the documentation he had provided could not be accepted. Bank officials insisted he produce a different form, according to Moshfegh. The bank was wrong, he maintains, because the form he had supplied was the correct one based on his current status as a student nearing graduation.
“This bank doesn’t know how the immigration system works, so they didn’t accept my document,” said Moshfegh, 36.
As anyone who is not named Daddy Warbucks knows, if your bank account is frozen, your bills are not going to get paid; and credit card companies, landlords, and utility companies are not always the most sympathetic when it comes to their patrons’ problems. A similar story appeared in the Kansas City Star over a month ago, when Josh Collins and his wife Jessica Salazar Collins—whose family settled in Kansas three generations ago—were sent a questionnaire by Bank of America asking about their citizenship status. Both are America citizens. Josh was born in Wichita.
Bank of America said it was standard practice to ask about citizen status when opening a new account or updating customer information on an existing one.
“Like all financial institutions, we’re required by law to maintain complete and accurate records for all of our customers and may periodically request information, such as country of citizenship and proof of U.S. residency. This type of outreach is nothing new,” Bank of America said in a statement July 28. “This information must be up to date and therefore we periodically reach out to customers, which is what we did in this case.”
This is an interesting statement coming from Bank of America. The Star asked the California Bankers Association about federal law in regard to that information. A spokesperson told the newspaper that, as far as they knew, federal law only requires that banks verify a client’s name, their date of birth, a residential address, and their Social Security number. Josh Collins said that when he received a paper asking for this information, he assumed the piece of snail mail—which wasn’t printed on the same paper used for previous Bank of America correspondence he had received—was some kind of scam.
Then there were the questions, addressed specifically to Josh. What’s your Social Security number? Your address? Do you have any offshore accounts?
And then: Are you a U.S. citizen? Do you have dual citizenship?
“I knew they already had my Social Security number and my address,” said Josh Collins, 39, who is a photographer for a local news station. “But it was also asking things they’d never asked before, like if I was a citizen.”
The Collinses held onto the mailer for a couple of weeks, figuring it was spam because they hadn’t heard anything else from their bank on the matter. They had banked with Bank of America since 2000. Then, out of the blue, Jessica Collins had her credit card rejected at a Jack in the Box drive-thru. The couple spoke with KCUR TV about how humiliating and idiotic the experience was.
The Collins’ account had been frozen by Bank of America. They called the bank and confirmed their identity, waited and called again. Then Jessica got an email that said all of the bills she pays automatically online were cut off.
The Collinses called again and were told to go and see a bank teller.
“And first question she had is, ‘Are you a U.S. citizen?’” Josh said. “She turned her computer screen around so we could see the monitor and there was a little red flag at the bottom.”
According to the news, the issue isn’t that the law has changed—the requirements for financial institutions to have more up-to-date personal (and verified) information on their clients have been in place for decades—it’s that the environment surrounding immigration has changed in recent years. Citizenship is not federally mandated for people to open accounts. Just ask people like Paul Manafort and Donald Trump and Michael Cohen. But banks seem to think they are allowed to overreach with their powers the same way the federal government has been overreaching with its immigration Gestapo forces.