21 Savage’s ICE Arrest Shows Us the Limits of Birthright Citizenship Connections
Grammy-nominated rapper 21 Savage (born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph) was arrested and detained by ICE after a police-enforced traffic stop in Atlanta on Sunday, February 3. The UK-born rapper came to the US at age 12 and overstayed his visa, according to immigration officials. Now, with the 26-year-old artist in custody under threat of deportation proceedings, his lawyers argue that his arrest and detention constitute a “civil law violation” intended to “intimidate” Abraham-Joseph into giving up on his bid for US citizenship.
“Mr. Abraham-Joseph initially entered the US legally in July 2005, but subsequently failed to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa and he became unlawfully present in the US when his visa expired in July 2006,” ICE said in a statement on Monday. “In addition to being in violation of federal immigration law, Mr. Abraham-Joseph was convicted on felony drug charges in October 2014 in Fulton County, Georgia.”
But ICE’s assertions tell an incomplete story, according to Abraham-Joseph’s lawyers.
In a statement released Monday, attorney Charles H. Kuck argued that Abraham-Joseph’s detention is an attempt by ICE to bully Abraham-Joseph into leaving the US, and that he has been fully cooperative with immigration officials since 2017, when he applied for a U-Visa, a visa set aside for victims of particular crimes and who “have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.” Kuck didn’t detail what crimes his client has been victim of.
“ICE has not charged Mr. Abraham-Joseph with any crime,” Kuck’s statement reads. “As a minor, his family overstayed their work visas, and he, like almost two million other children, was left without legal status through no fault of his own. This [arrest] 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.”
The statement goes on to say that the rapper has triumphed over the adversity of his early life “to achieve success and make contributions to our society that rival any of those by a natural born citizen.”
The statement also makes one critical point: that Abraham-Joseph is a parent to US-born children, whom he supports, which gives him an eligibility boost for securing citizenship. But that point is one that’s heavily politicized, and a divisive wedge under the Trump administration.
Since 2010, Congress has required that ICE confirm whether or not detained adults are the parents of children born in the US in order to prevent children who are citizens from losing parents to deportation. Although some 30,000 parents of US citizen minors were deported each year between 2015 and 2017, guardianship of US citizen offspring tends to offer undocumented immigrants in the US some measure of deportation protection so long as they stay out of trouble (the fact that Abraham-Joseph received a felony conviction in 2014 is definitely a strike against him in this regard) and check in with immigration authorities.
The rapper’s children, who are US citizens by virtue of being US born, will also be able to sponsor his immigration once they turn 21. But this process of passing citizenship between generations, sometimes described as “chain migration,” his been a sticking point under the Trump administration. Shortly before the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump announced plans to abolish birthright citizenship — the automatic citizenship status of US-born children — altogether.
It appears the rapper’s attorneys aren’t relying entirely on the citizenship status of his children to make his case.
“We are working diligently to get Mr. Abraham-Joseph out of detention while we work with the authorities to clear up any misunderstandings,” said another attorney, Dina LaPolt, in a separate statement Monday, adding that her client is a role model who works with underprivileged youth and throws his name behind important social causes.
And while some fans question the validity of the rapper’s claim to Atlanta roots given new information about his immigrant experience, activist and lawyer Alida Garcia pointed out on Twitter that the immigration history of 21 Savage is hardly unique to his industry and its US hometown stans.
“Nicki Minaj – former undocumented immigrant,” Garcia tweeted Monday afternoon in support of the rapper. “French Montana – identifies as a Dreamer. No one debates if they’re from NY. Stop acting like what @21savage is experiencing is a joke. He immigrated as a young child, grew up in ATL & and is facing a very serious issue.”
(Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images)