21 Savage: why was the rapper arrested and what happens next?

Ice says Atlanta rapper is a citizen of the UK and subsequently failed to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa

Rapper 21 Savage was due to attend the Grammy awards ceremony on Sunday. He has been nominated for two awards including Record of the Year for his Post Malone collaboration, Rockstar. It was expected to be the crowning moment of a momentous year for the rapper, in which his second album, I Am > I Was, debuted at No 1.

But instead of being fitted for suits, the rapper, whose given name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, is currently in custody in the US. His manager, Stone Mound Meezy, says the he is being held on “lockdown” 23 hours a day with no television and minimal outside contact. It seems unlikely he will be able to attend the ceremony.

Abraham-Joseph has lived in Atlanta since 2005, having arrived legally in the US at the age of seven. He is considered part of the city’s rap royalty along with Young Thug, Future, Migos and 2 Chainz.

But on the morning of Super Bowl Sunday last weekend, he was arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents and threatened with deportation.

According to Ice, Abraham-Joseph is a citizen of the UK who failed to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa.

On Tuesday, he confirmed he had been born in Britain.

Because he has lived in the US so long and has immediate relatives with legal status, he can seek to challenge the removal procedure via an immigration judge.

Why was he detained?

Ice claimed Abraham-Joseph carried a felony drug conviction from 2014, which is enough reason to place an undocumented person in Georgia under arrest and begin removal procedures.

Abraham-Joseph’s lawyer, Charles H Kuck, contradicted this in a statement to BuzzFeed News. He said that the arrest is “based upon incorrect information about prior criminal charges”. Kuck maintains that the arrest serves no other purpose than to unnecessarily punish and intimidate Abraham-Joseph. Ice did not respond to requests for comment.

The legal ins and outs of his case are complicated and it is still unclear what rights he may have.

Matt Cameron, an immigration lawyer in Massachusetts who has been following the case closely said he is concerned about the timing of the arrest, which came after Abraham-Joseph performed a new song on Jimmy Kimmel in which he criticizes the Trump administration’s child separation policy.

“[Ice] makes the decisions of how and when they pick people up,” Cameron said.

Amy Gottlieb, associate regional director of the American Friends Service Committee and the wife Ravi Ragbir, has also questioned the timing of the arrest. “There is evidence that Ice has retaliated against some immigrants who have been outspoken about government policy, including Ravi … it would lead me to seriously question the motivation of [Abraham-Joseph’s] arrest.”

What happens next?

The Newham street where 21 Savage was living at birth, according to a copy of a British birth certificate.
The Newham street where 21 Savage was living at birth, according to a copy of a British birth certificate. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

If Abraham-Joseph does have a prior felony charge, as Ice claims, the chances that he would be able to remain in the US are slim. US immigration and criminal law interweave creating a complex legal landscape.

“A drug conviction can obliterate the ability of a person to stay in the US,” said Benita Jain, a supervising attorney of Immigrant Defense Project.

Kuck has argued that Abraham-Joseph’s undocumented status is, like that of Dreamers, a product of his family’s choices. “As a minor, his family overstayed their work visa, and he, like almost 2 million other children, was left without legal status through no fault of his own,” Kuck’s statement says. “Ice has not charged Mr Abraham-Joseph with any crime … This is a civil law violation, and the continued detention of Mr Abraham-Joseph serves no other purpose than to unnecessarily punish him and try to intimidate him into giving up his right to fight to remain in the United States.”

In 2017, he filed for a special nonimmigrant U Visa which is set aside for victims of crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse and cooperated with police investigations while living in the US. His application may be related to when he was shot six times on his 21st birthday in 2013.

If, as his lawyer says, he does not have a felony charge on his record, or if he had a charge that has been sealed and vacated, then he may be allowed to remain in the US while his visa application is processed.

However, it may take a decade to come through, as United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can only accept a maximum of 10,000 U Visa applications per year and it has a huge backlog. As of 2017, it had more than 190,000 cases pending.

There are about 4.2 million black immigrants in the US and 619,000 are undocumented.

Black Lives Matter is filing an online petition to free 21 Savage, with over 330,000 signatures so far.

Fans have reacted with surprise to the news of his potential deportation – and an inevitable torrent of memes about Savage’s British identity. Offset, of Migos, wrote on Twitter: “All the memes and shit ain’t funny when somebody going through some … successful black man they always try some way to bring us down.”


Francisco Navas in New York

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