The rapper, in ICE custody with an expired visa, may face a long road back to Atlanta — if he can get there at all.
On Super Bowl Sunday, many music fans and executives were more focused on 21 Savage than anyone performing in the halftime show. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained the rapper on Feb. 3 in Atlanta, just miles from the football field. ICE officials have said he was born in the United Kingdom and overstayed his visa, and now the 26-year-old, born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, is being held without bond as he awaits deportation proceedings, which could result in him being barred from the United States for 10 years -- or life.
It’s a near-unprecedented event that sent shockwaves across the music world. Savage’s ascent from local sensation to a certified star with two Grammy nominations and a record of charitable actions is one of the biggest recent stories in hip-hop, and his arrest has been met with confusion and anger at a time when tension over immigration policy is already high. Not since British-born Slick Rick, who spent time in prison during an immigration dispute after a felony conviction in the 1990s, has a major rap star faced a citizenship issue. (Rick was later pardoned by the Governor of New York, in 2008.)
Many around the country have expressed support for 21 Savage, just as many rallied behind Meek Mill in 2018, helping the Philadelphia MC earn release after his imprisonment due to a probation violation. Politicians have, too: Georgia state Rep. Erica Thomas (D-39) says her team is working alongside other legislators on how to assist him, while Rep. Hank Johnson (D-4), who worked with Savage on a back-to-school drive in 2018, sent a character letter to the court calling him “a remarkable young man.”
“We stand behind our artist 21 Savage and fully support the efforts to secure his release,” Sylvia Rhone, president of Savage’s label Epic Records, said in a statement to Billboard. “He found his purpose in music and through his hard work and devotion has become one of the most respected hip hop artists in the world. He turned his life around and in doing so, became an inspiration to the Atlanta community and his legion of fans.”
ICE said in a statement that Savage was “unlawfully present in the U.S. and also a convicted felon.” It noted that he legally entered the country in 2005, though his team says he entered at age 7, merely visiting the United Kingdom for one month in 2005, and “lost his legal status through no fault of his own.” In a statement to Billboard, his lawyer Charles H. Kuck said the rapper had been detained based on “incorrect information about prior criminal charges.” Savage was arrested on drug charges in 2014, but, according to Atlanta ABC affiliate WSB, the charges were subsequently expunged. Kuck tells Billboard, “There is no conviction on his record. Period.”
Still, multiple immigration experts tell Billboard that expunged convictions -- even when removed from a person’s record under Georgia state law -- are generally still considered convictions for federal immigration purposes. (“Typically they are still considered under the law as a conviction,” says Sarah Owings, a private Atlanta immigration attorney and Board of Governors member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “There's no way to just unwind it with an expungement.”) A drug conviction could also hypothetically make Savage ineligible for cancellation of removal, a remedy otherwise 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 is the father to three children who are U.S. citizens.
In a statement released Tuesday night (Feb. 5), Savage’s team of lawyers said, “Mr. Abraham-Joseph has three U.S. Citizen children, a lawful permanent resident mother and four siblings that are either U.S. Citizens or lawful permanent residents. He has exceptionally strong ties in the United States, having lived here since he was in the first grade. Because of his length of residence in the United States and his immediate relatives, Mr. Abraham-Joseph is eligible to seek Cancellation of Removal from an Immigration Judge.”
Deportation could have serious long-term effects on his career, to say nothing of the toll taken on his family. However, a lifetime ban doesn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t be allowed to return. Immigration attorney David Leopold, former president/general counsel of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, says the Department of Homeland Security has the power to authorize waivers that would allow for temporary reentry -- for touring purposes, for instance -- but that it’s hardly a sure bet. “The waiver comes from the same agency that deports him,” Leopold says.
Kuck says Savage applied for a U visa in 2017, which grants U.S. residency to crime victims or their families when they cooperate with the investigation of a crime. (Savage was a victim of a near-fatal shooting in 2013.) It also provides a path to permanent residency and citizenship. His application is pending. It’s possible that an immigration judge could decide to postpone a ruling on Savage’s deportation and wait to see if the visa is granted, Leopold says. However, he notes, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions took steps to limit the discretion of immigration judges, and it’s unclear whether such a ruling remains within their power. “Sessions stymied the power of the immigration courts,” he says.
But if a final ruling is postponed until the U visa application is decided, Savage’s status could remain in limbo for some time. 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. Meanwhile, the rapper’s prior arrest, despite its absence from his record, could still come into play when determining whether or not he remains detained throughout the process. “In most cases where the grounds for deportation are based on controlled substances,” says Leopold, “the law doesn’t provide for bond until removal proceedings are finished.”
The fight ahead for 21 Savage and his team could be lengthy. But all involved have been determined to fight for his release. “Mr. Abraham-Joseph is not subject to mandatory detention under federal law and is eligible for bond. By statute, bond should be granted by ICE when there is no flight risk or a danger to the community,” Savage’s attorneys wrote in their statement last night. “ICE routinely grants bond to individuals in Mr. Abraham-Joseph’s circumstances, specifically individuals who have overstayed a prior valid visa and have relief from deportation under federal law. There is no chance that Mr. Abraham-Joseph is a flight risk. Mr. Abraham-Joseph is not a “danger” to the community as his acts of philanthropy and good will, as well as his music, continue to improve the communities from which he comes.”
Additional reporting by Ross Scarano.