The news that 21 Savage had been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in many ways overshadowed the Super Bowl that was taking place just miles away from where the rapper was arrested. How could someone whose music has become synonymous with East Atlanta not be from the city—or even the country? And what does being from a city even mean? If you weren’t born somewhere but were raised there since a young age, can you still lay claim to that place?
With ICE immediately threatening to send 21 Savage back to the United Kingdom after his arrest, many other questions arose. It has been a confusing two weeks both for people who are familiar with 21 Savage and hit songs such as “Bank Account” and “A Lot,” and those who had never heard of him before his arrest. The situation is also taking place at a time of heightened attention to immigration (on Friday, President Trump declared a national emergency to build a wall on the U.S./Mexico border) and has brought conversations about black immigrants in particular to the forefront.
Here’s an overview of everything that has happened since ICE detained 21 Savage, whose legal name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, on February 3.
How did 21 Savage end up in ICE custody?
On February 3—Super Bowl Sunday—the 26-year-old was arrested in Atlanta by ICE, who claimed the rapper had overstayed his visa in 2006. ICE officials immediately announced that Savage, who they labeled a “convicted felon,” was being held without bond while awaiting deportation proceedings.
“Mr. Abraham-Joseph was taken into ICE custody as he is unlawfully present in the U.S. and also a convicted felon. Mr. Abraham-Joseph initially entered the U.S. legally in July 2005, but subsequently failed to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa”, Cox emailed https://t.co/MeqSZAFAcz
— Mark Winne (@MarkWinneWSB) February 3, 2019
So he’s not from East Atlanta?
He wasn’t born there, but he moved there when he was 7 years old. According to his representatives, the rapper “has been continuously physically present in the United States for almost 20 years, except for a brief visit abroad.” After visiting the U.K. for one month in 2005, the rapper lost his legal status one year later, although his team stresses this was “through no fault of his own.”
In a press release, his team said Savage “like almost two million of his immigrant child peers was left without immigration status as a young child with no way to fix his immigration status.”
Much of 21 Savage’s identity as a rapper is tied to his East Atlanta roots. To promote his latest album I Am > I Was, which frequently references his time in Zone 6, the rapper turned a motel on Glenwood Road into an interactive pop-up. In 2018, he also treated young fans to photos at a Puma event on South Dekalb Mall and held a back-to-school drive outside the 285 Flea Mart off Glenwood Road.
Where was he born?
He was born in the United Kingdom.
During an interview with Good Morning America on February 15, the rapper says he wasn’t hiding where he was born, but he wasn’t vocal about it for fear of deportation.
“I’ve been here 19 years,” he says. “This is all I know.”
Did he try to remedy the situation once his visa expired?
In 2017, the rapper applied for a U Visa. The status is pending.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, a U Visa “is set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.” Writer and attorney Keith Harris, who I worked with while reporting this story for Billboard, notes the U Visa provides a “path to permanent residency and citizenship.” Harris also notes, “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is only authorized to issue 10,000 U visas annually and there’s a backlog of several years.”
According to Buzzfeed News, the rapper’s attorneys have confirmed the U Visa application is related to a near-fatal shooting that the rapper was a victim of in 2013.
During an interview with Good Morning America, Savage says as a young adult he didn’t know how not being born in America was going to affect his life as an adult.
— Good Morning America (@GMA) February 15, 2019
ICE say he’s a convicted criminal. Is this true?
21 Savage pleaded guilty to a felony drug charge in 2014, but the conviction was subsequently expunged. Immigration experts have said an expungement is still considered a conviction for immigration purposes but last week, Buzzfeed News reported a statement from Savage’s attorneys that stated “U.S. government attorneys dropped an ‘aggravated felony’ charge as grounds to deport the rapper.”
ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
Sarah Owings, an Atlanta immigration attorney and Board of Governors member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says it’s not uncommon for ICE attorneys to vacate charges in this way. One example of why a charge would be vacated is if an immigrant is encouraged to take a plea deal for a criminal case without being aware of how it could be used against them in immigration court. “If they don’t know that and their attorneys don’t advise them of that, they wind up with something that affects their immigration status,” she says. “They didn’t make a knowing and voluntary plea.”
Owings adds, however, that being released on bond in immigration court—which is what happened to 21 Savage on February 13—is no small feat. “It’s really difficult to get released on bond here in Georgia,” she says.
All of this sounds complicated. And confusing.
Yes. As Owings notes, “the large majority of people don’t understand the immigration enforcement process at all.”
“Quite often this stuff happens in the dark,” she says.
What has the public’s reaction been to this?
While there was minimal mention of the rapper during the Grammy Awards on February 10, where he was originally set to perform his nominated hit “Rockstar” with Post Malone, there has been plenty of support from politicians and within the music community. Artists such as T.I., Killer Mike, and Metro Boomin have publicly issued statements of support. Congressman Hank Johnson, of Georgia’s 4th District, wrote a character letter to ICE on the rapper’s behalf soon after he was detained, and state House Representative Erica Thomas told Billboard she hopes Abraham-Joseph is able to gain citizenship. On February 12, about 50 protestors gathered outside of the Atlanta Immigration Court to demand the rapper be released on bond. They delivered a Black Lives Matter petition signed by more than 450,000 people to the court’s front gate.
Now that he’s been released on bond, what’s next?
ICE is continuing to pursue deportation. An expedited hearing will be scheduled for a later date.
Owings notes that Savage’s team might apply for “cancellation of removal,” which would allow the rapper to work and live in the U.S. while his case is pending. Harris reports “cancellation of removal” is “available to undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for 10 years and can show that their deportation would cause hardship to a spouse, parent, or child who is here legally.” Savage has three children.