Hours before the Super Bowl, rapper 21 Savage was arrested and placed in federal detention awaiting deportation. The arrest of the Atlanta local, whose given name is Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, came as a surprise as many of the rapper’s fans assumed that he was born in Atlanta. However, according to ICE, the 26-year-old rapper was born in the UK and immigrated to the U.S. in 2005. His visa expired in 2006. He was 14 years old.
21 Savage was supposed to head to the Grammys in Los Angeles next week, where he is nominated for two awards. Instead, he is more likely to spend that night either in a federal detention facility or back in the UK — away from his family, in a country he hasn’t lived in for over a decade.
As an immigrant, I believe that what happened to 21 Savage is inhumane. Deportation is a cruel tool that is used to break up families and communities. I cannot imagine how devastated I’d feel if I was forced to be separated from my wife, my baby daughter, my career, and my life in Philadelphia without knowing when or if I could come back — all over a missing piece of paper. It is an embarrassment that the richest, most powerful country on Earth spends its resources on separating families.
A lot of people who were born in America don’t seem to realize how bureaucratic, time-consuming, and expensive it is to be an immigrant in the U.S. — even an extremely privileged immigrant like me. I’ve had multiple visas in the past decade — tourist visa, student visa, employment authorization document, green card with condition, green card without condition. I’ve agonized over legal documents and forms for countless hours. I’ve worried about providing proof that my marriage, to the woman I love, is seen as “in good faith" by immigration officials. I’ve spent thousands of dollars in fees. My daughter and I don’t have the same citizenship or passport.
It is very easy to make mistakes navigating these rules as an immigrant. As an international student you won’t be allowed to reenter the U.S. if your school didn’t sign a form allowing you to leave. As a permanent resident, you are required to inform U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services any time you change your address, and you need to remember to renew your visas — costing hundreds of dollars in fees and requiring a biometric interview and multiple confusing forms. When I got my green card, I didn’t realize that I would need to go through a process that is called “removal of condition" or it will expire after two years. I sent in the application last minute but had to cancel a family vacation because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to come back into the U.S. after the trip.
What my own experience taught me is that even if you are a white and affluent immigrant from a country that Trump doesn’t consider a “shithole," being an immigrant is extremely difficult. Black and brown immigrants also need to navigate a criminal justice system that seeks to punish people of color.
But when I read the news about 21 Savage, I was puzzled: Why couldn’t a celebrity who is worth millions of dollars hire lawyers to adjust his status?
According to ICE, the rapper has a drug felony conviction from 2014. That means that his odds of adjusting status— that is, moving from being undocumented to having status through work or marriage — is relatively low. There are some things that money can’t buy.
Diego Aranda Teixeira, an immigration attorney who specializes in removal defense, says overstaying a visa could be a relatively simple thing to adjust from — though he says nothing is easy in immigration court. But when a criminal record is involved, options are often very limited. Teixeira says that preventing a deportation is always hard but a criminal record can make it even harder: "If you have certain criminal charges, your time in the U.S. could be done.”
21 Savage might not have known that he is undocumented. After all, he was 14 when his visa is expired and his parents might not have wanted to talk about it. Teixeira says that is not uncommon. However, as a defense against removal, that won’t get him very far.