A Look At The Nuance Of U.S. Immigration Through The Lens Of 21 Savage’s Case
For nine days, 21 Savage carried out his day-to-day inside a detention center, a timeframe that felt like two months according to his manager, Kei Henderson. The “A Lot” rapper was detained by the Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) in Atlanta, Georgia (Feb. 3) on claims that he’s a British citizen who overstayed his visa since migrating to the U.S. city in 2005 at age seven. The detainment occurred when the 26-year-old was pulled over by the Atlanta Police Department (APD), with ICE in tow. APD claims it had an arrest warrant for rapper Young Nudy, a cousin of 21 Savage who was also part of the artist’s entourage at the time of the incident.
On Feb. 12, 21 was released on bond until his immigration court case occurs. Since Savage’s incident reached the national spotlight, petitions and a larger conversation on the nation’s immigration policy have reached a fevered pitch. The situation was accelerated once Jay-Z contracted attorney Alex Spiro to represent Savage, born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph.
While the detainment presumably shocked the masses, the most glaring issue is the fact that Abraham-Joseph was not initially granted bond — that discretion is left up to ICE or a judge. Spiro notes that ICE can also attribute past criminal offenses “into their enforcement policies and strategies,” when it concerns detainment, but given ICE’s controversial statement on Abraham-Joseph (noting his past and expunged felony drug charge), Spiro believes this situation is a “miscarriage of justice, a misuse of resources.”
“And I’ll say two further things,” Spiro continues. “One is even if you take the position that he should have to answer to ICE for any of these issues, why not bond him out, allow him access to his paperwork, to his family, to his lawyers and allow him to fight his day in court like a civilized human being? The second thing is, to talk about the resource question, even thinking about this as an economics question, rather than let this man be at liberty where he provides for so many people, so many people depend on him for their own employment, so many of his dollars go to helping taxes, so many of his dollars go to philanthropy and helping people and rather than allowing him to help society and bring joy through his music and bring happiness, instead of that, what do we do? We take those same government resources and we do an operational target to incarcerate him, to cage him.”
Spiro says he can’t draw up conclusions or “speak to” ICE’s “motivations,” noting that there could be varied reasons behind the agency’s motion. "It may be just as simple as they’re just treating him like everybody else but we’re not used to it as a society becoming so public," Spiro says. "Once it becomes public it’s just troubling and seems disproportionate and illogical, and it may very well be that he was targeted either to set an example or for some other convoluted reason. I don’t know yet because my focus has almost entirely been on the avenues to release, but we’ll get to the bottom of what happened here one way or another."
Now, with Abraham-Joseph awaiting the fate of his status in the U.S. while out on bond and in the midst of an expedited hearing, Spiro states the pieces of this puzzle have to be treated with precision. “When you’re dealing with people’s liberty, you can’t just look at it like an equation. You have to try at least at some level to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and think to yourself if they had the power and I had grown up in their country, how would I want to be treated and what would be the decent and right way to treat me?” he says. “If we could do that and have a little empathy I think it would go a long way to solving what anybody in the world outside of America must think is a very troubling problem and a lot of people in America are starting to think is a troubling problem.”
Here, we look at a few terms and past immigration instances that outline the severity of the country’s treatment of migrants and the legislation that can alter the lives of those awaiting legal residence.
1. How The IIRAIRA Radicalized Immigration:
The combination of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) allowed the government to separate undocumented immigrants into two sets. According to The Huffington Post, the division is distinctly based off how a migrant entered the U.S. If one came to America with a visa but overstayed its duration, then they will not have to return to their home country in order to file for official residence since they entered legally. If someone entered illegally, they would have to return to their native country in order to file for legal residence.
If an applicant raises a red flag under any “grounds of inadmissibility,” like unlawfully living in the country between 180 to 365 days, applicants can face a three-year penalty, while overstaying more than a year can pin 10 years before someone is allowed re-entry.
“Removal deportation and the laws that govern it are very complicated. Suffice it to say that we are trying to avoid that,” Spiro says concerning Abraham-Joseph’s case. “The other thing that can happen is the visa and paperwork that’s been pending can actually get accelerated and get determined fast enough so that they catch up or bypass the need for removal.”
2. Qualifications For U Nonimmigrant Status (U Visa):
It’s been stated that Abraham-Joseph has filed for U Nonimmigrant Status or a U Visa in 2017. Persons that qualify for this form of legal residency have to be a victim of a specific crime (sexual assault, trafficking, extortion, manslaughter, domestic violence, witness tampering) or encountered mental or physical trauma as a result of the crime’s aftermath. Victims can also assist law enforcement in apprehending suspects and helping to solve the case.
In 2013, Abraham-Joseph was shot six times and lost his close friend, Johnny, during the incident. The pair were the victims of an attempted robbery. Spiro notes 21 Savage’s application has remained pending for quite some time. “The backlog is years and years, this site indicates that over five years these visas can be pending before processing,” he says. Spiro believes an increase in employees to handle these types of applications can help accelerate processing times. “Maybe we should put more people to process visas and be humanitarian in the way that they deal with people and less people out handcuffing un-dangerous people who don’t need to be handcuffed.”
If Abraham-Joseph’s U Visa application gets approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), he will become a “lawfully permanent resident” or a Green Card holder, and have access to rights like opening a bank account and attending an “academic or vocational” school. The government caps the amount of U Visas it approves at 10,000 per year. A victim of criminal activity is solely eligible for this form of immigrant status, not their families. The length of the U Visa’s processing time can take anywhere from a year to a year and a half.
3. Detainment Conditions And Mental Health:
Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center is the reported facility where Abraham-Joseph was held. According to Rolling Stone, it’s deemed one of ICE’s worst immigration centers with multiple reports of sexual assault, abuse of solitary confinement by guards, and expired food being served to detainees. In a summary published by Project South, Irwin is also known for administering high bond rates.
Spiro says Abraham-Joseph’s living conditions were “inhumane” and his communication with those on the outside was strictly limited — to have contact with his legal team was a privilege. “He has no ability meaningfully to exercise and have proper nutrition and he’s severely limited in his ability to even get legal help and to protect himself. He can’t respond when somebody says something in public or the media. He’s given no voice,” Spiro reveals. “He’s utterly voiceless and it’s a dehumanizing experience and he’s lucky that he’s so beloved that people are going to be out there protecting him for him but it is a scary thing to not be able to protect yourself. He has young children. He can’t be with them to protect them and it’s a travesty.”
In mid-2018, Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy displayed how dire conditions are within detainment centers, especially concerning children who are separated from their guardians, and the mental health assistance that certain people will need once released. It’s also reported that immigrants dealing with mental health issues have been unjustly placed in solitary confinement. “There is a pattern of people with psycho-social disabilities being inappropriately placed in isolation, not receiving adequate mental health care, and dying by suicide,” said Clara Long, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. Recently, a 40-year-old Russian man named Mergensana Amar, who was seeking asylum, committed suicide after a year of detainment at an immigration center. The Washington Post also notes that nine people died in 2018 while under ICE’s detainment.
4. The Cost Of Detainment:
In a report by CNBC that analyzed ICE’s 2018 budget, $133.99 per day is the cost it takes to preserve an adult bed. For families that include mothers and children, $319 per day is the cost to maintain that space. The article also outlines ICE’s estimate that immigrants are kept in detention centers for 44 days on average.
“Every single day that he is in there, we are paying for him to be detained,” Spiro says on Abraham-Joseph. “We are paying money to actually put this man in a cage when he can just as easily fight this case from the outside and we can go to court and handle it that way.”
Earlier this month, Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) gathered 200,000 signatures to demand that fellow Democrats decline future increases in ICE's budget, The Hill reports. Ocasio-Cortez, who has called for ICE's abolishment, took aim at the agency for its treatment of not only Abraham-Joseph but also political game-changers and children.
5. Immigration Across The Globe:
Across the globe, the paths of migration from underserved countries to those with greater economic opportunities continue to shed a spotlight on various nations’ immigration policies. There was the onset of Brexit in 2016, Italy’s crackdown on an influx of those seeking asylum, and Trump’s belief that a border wall between the states and Mexico will drastically cut crime, plus his Muslim Ban proposal.
The Trump administration recently attempted to end the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, which benefited those migrating from El Salvador, South Sudan, Haiti, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Honduras, Syria, Nepal, and Nicaragua. It was meant to protect migrants who left countries ravaged by natural disasters or armed turmoil and are unable to return. Over 320,000 people fall under TPS.
Another sector of immigration that fell under intense scrutiny within Trump’s administration was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In 2017, he attempted to nix any hope of "dreamers" renewing their application, thus putting them at risk for deportation. DACA, which benefits 700,000 young adults, was established in 2012 to temporarily protect children who migrated to the U.S. before they turned 16 from removal. It also presented another form of the term "lawfully present" and would allow DACA recipients a chance to get a higher education and work permits as they went through the proper channels for legal residence.
“I think that young people that are not born here, and so are not given citizenship but come here in their early years, face the question of their place and their status from the moment they start becoming adults,” Spiro says. “As a teenager at some point no doubt where you realize you’re not an American citizen and if something goes wrong, if you don’t have a way to get citizenship, if you don’t have a way to get status, if you don’t have a way to get a visa, that you live a life in limbo and a life that’s insecure in some ways. That’s a troubling thing for people to have to grow up with.”
While Abraham-Joseph was released on bond, his fate is still in the process of being determined by an immigration judge. “There are rules and laws that govern this but at the end of the day ever since he was moving forward with his life as an adult,” Spiro says, “he’s been dealing with this immigration issue and dealing with it in good faith.”