Should banks be asking customers if they’re U.S. citizens?
Candidate Donald Trump rode his anti-immigrant rhetoric straight to the White House. Since then, he’s banned people from heavily Muslim-populated countries, taken children from their parents upon arrival at the Mexico border, is attempting to make citizenship status a question on the 2020 Census, and one hot day in late July, blocked a fourth-generation American mom from buying her kids tacos at her local swimming pool in Roeland Park, Kansas.
Jessica Salazar Collins, a Bank of America customer for nearly 20 years, called BofA to ask why her debit card had been declined. Eventually, she learned that her account had been frozen, because her husband had not responded to a bank postcard inquiring about his citizenship status. Josh Collins was born in Wichita.
Neither of the Collinses has ever left the United States except for a first-anniversary, belated honeymoon trip to Mexico in 2005. They had been Bank of America customers before that.
In time not as quickly as promised, and not in time to buy movie tickets for the family the next day the couple regained access to their earnings. But by early August, they’d taken their banking to a local credit union. “This happened to the wrong people,” Jessica Collins told Ethnic Media Services.
BofA isn’t alone in asking customers their citizenship status. Checking account applications from Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, US Bank and even the credit union where the Collinses now do their banking, Mainstreet, all ask about it, and so do San Francisco’s Fire and Golden1 credit unions.
BofA declined to say why it targeted Josh Collins but not his wife, how often it performs such “routine updates” of client accounts, or how many postcards it sent out like the one the Collinses ultimately threw away in fear it was actually a scam, or how many more people experienced the bank’s “last resort,” as spokesman Christopher Feeney described it, of having their accounts frozen for failing to respond.
Banks and American Bankers Association spokeswoman Blair Bernstein generally explain the citizenship question as a part of their effort to combat money-laundering and terrorism funding, but in every case, the decision to ask customers about their citizenship status is the bank’s own choice. Federal rules do not require it.
“We have many customers who aren’t U.S. citizens,” Feeney told Ethnic Media Services. He also said the citizenship question is nothing new for them and probably has been in place at least a decade. The Collinses, he said, just got caught up in one of the bank’s periodic updates of client information.
Treasury Department regulations require that banks know customers’ names, date of birth, Social Security numbers and addresses.
Tightening due diligence
“Banks may be tightening up their due diligence,” said lawyer Alma Angotti, who specializes in money laundering and terror funding enforcement for the consulting firm Navigant in Washington, D.C. She previously worked at the Securities and Exchange Commission and Treasury Department.
“The current political climate has cast doubt on why financial institutions are doing this. There are lots of things banks will ask you that aren’t required,” she said.
Bank of America spokesman Feeney described the government’s various sanctions against other countries as the root of an array of regulations that led the bank to ask about citizenship. Knowledge of a customer’s dual citizenship, for instance, Angotti said, might keep a bank from questioning why a customer is sending money out of the country.
The more information a bank has up front, the fewer questions it will have as it routinely monitors customers’ accounts and transactions.
But for those without citizenship status, immigrant advocates say, any requirement that they divulge their circumstances is going to deter them from doing business with that bank.
“It’s something we’ve been hearing about for a while,” said Paulina Gonzalez of the California Reinvestment Coalition said. “It seems to correlate with … the anti-immigrant stance of the administration.
“That’s what’s so concerning. People are afraid to sign papers,” she said, referring to a 2017 survey done by some of the 300 members of the nonprofit California Reinvestment Coalition. Her 32-year-old organization aims to ensure financial institutions reinvest in their communities and “do no harm,” she said. Some members in the course of their work will try to gather rudimentary information from the people they provide financial counseling and small business support.
“People are afraid to sign even for nonprofits in this political climate,” she said.
In San Francisco, the treasurer and tax collector’s Office of Financial Empowerment reports that from 2011 through 2015, the percentage of “unbanked” city residents dropped from 5.9% to 2.1%.
Although it also notes that 16.5% of city residents continue to rely on payday-loan and check-cashing companies rather than traditional banks, some of its success in getting people bank accounts may be due to its program BankOn San Francisco, which refers citizens to banks that have met its “very specific standards,” program director Sean Kline told Ethnic Media Services. Among those standards is the requirement that they accept non-U.S. identification.
Among its banking partners is the Self-Help Credit Union, formed in 2008. That institution requires knowing a person’s citizenship status for loan applications, but not for checking accounts. Its website includes links to information on such topics as “You Don’t Need to Be a Citizen to Have a US Bank Account” (https://tinyurl.com/noncitizenbanking) and “How undocumented immigrants can get bank accounts” (https://tinyurl.com/whatdocumentswork) as well as testimonials to the reasons why people should ꟷ to establish credit history, safety in not carrying cash, earn interest and the bill-paying convenience.
Latino credit unions
It also lists Latino credit unions across the country (https://tinyurl.com/Latinocreditunions). Gonzalez is quoted on the laws protecting customers’ personal information from governmental prying.
Banking, Gonzalez said, “is such a necessity of everyday life. Here we are, creating a situation where they’re not going to have access to this important function, or they’re going to freeze your account or make you feel like you’re not welcome there.”
There’s “a lack of trust in financial institutions,” she said. “To have to answer such a private question in this political climate … there are privacy rules in place. I know the bank can’t turn that information over without a subpoena, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t afraid that’s going to happen.”
“We need this citizenship information to determine the eligibility and suitability of our products and to comply with the USA PATRIOT Act,” reads Wells Fargo’s online checking account application, in an explainer popup accompanying the online form’s citizenship question. Feeney, also, had cited the 2001 Patriot Act and the 1970 Bank Secrecy Act and Treasury Department regulations, but ultimately could not cite specific requirements that banks collect clients’ citizenship.
Neither could Blair Bernstein, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association, who cited the 1970 legislation, “Know Your Customer” standards, and “strict regulatory requirements steadily expanded since 9/11,” along with regulators’ routine examinations of banks for compliance.