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Immigration

21 Savage and America’s Black Immigrant Trap

There are an estimated 575,000 black undocumented immigrants living in the United States, people who moved here from African countries, Caribbean islands, Europe, and elsewhere. These individuals have been largely absent from the national immigration conversation, until now. The recent detention of She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, the Atlanta rapper known as 21 Savage, has drawn direct media attention to the difficulties black immigrants face. Unfortunately, they have presented the experience in a distorted, inaccurate, and heartless way, and in doing so have reinforced the system of injustice 21 Savage has found himself ensnared in.  

After spending more than a week in a detention center, 21 Savage will be released on bail pending a deportation hearing. He will be freed from a cell, but his fight is far from over. The earliest reports of Savage’s immigration arrest came early on Super Bowl Sunday, mere hours after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agents took him into custody. Media outlets rushed to publish clickbait articles, which omitted context, key facts, and nuance. #BREAKING: ICE arrests rapper 21 Savage, says he’s actually from UK one headline read. An ICE spokesperson told CNN, “His whole public persona is false. He actually came to the U.S. from the U.K. as a teen and overstayed his visa.” The truth: Savage came to the U.S as a seven-year-old child and has spent almost 20 years living and growing up in the United States. But the internet latched on to ICE’s disinformation, producing and circulating memes dragging Savage for “falsely” repping Atlanta.

The backlash is as perplexing as it is baseless. The United States notoriously demands that immigrants assimilate to American culture, learn how to speak English, and renounce ties to their home countries. So why do we feel fooled when an immigrant, like 21 Savage, lacks an accent, reps the American city he grew up in, and not only embraces “the culture” but helps to create it? Rev. Ryan Eller, executive director at Define American told me, “Mr. Abraham-Joseph has been a part of this country for 20 years, and he has become a distinct part of American pop culture. To remove him from the country would be to remove a part of ourselves.”

Sadly, large swaths of the U.S. population don’t see it that way, and would like to amputate and discard the part of ourselves that is foreign-born, black, or both. The truth is, demands that immigrants like 21 Savage assimilate are really calls for them to embrace whiteness.

Black immigrants are thus caught in a unique bind, where they risk dire consequences if they don’t sand away both their racial identities and their identities as immigrants. ICE’s statement about Abraham-Joseph’s supposed criminality kept finding its way into online articles, and television-news segments. “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,” a Washington Post report read. But this is apparently a complete fabrication: 21 Savage’s lawyers contend that he has “no criminal convictions or charges under state of federal law.” Other reports suggest he was previously arrested for “serious felony drug charges,” but that those charges had been expunged and the records sealed. Setting aside the inaccuracies, all these reports lack critical context.

Jonathan Jayes-Green, co-founder of the Undocublack Network, put it this way when we discussed 21 Savage’s predicament on Crooked Conversations, “Black immigrants are invisible and highly visible.” Invisible in the national conversation around immigration, and highly visible to law enforcement as black people in America. “ICE uses criminality to deport black immigrants,” he added.

We’re familiar with the statistics, black people in America are five times more likely to be incarcerated than whites. In 2011, a Justice Department Report (updated in 2016) found black drivers were more likely to get pulled over for traffic violations and more likely to get ticketed and searched than white drivers. This type of discrimination bleeds over to the immigration system. Black immigrants from African and Caribbean countries are twice as likely to be deported due to criminal convictions than any other group of immigrants according to a report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Black immigrants, and black citizens are not more likely to commit crimes, there aren’t any reports to suggest so, but they are more likely to get caught up in the criminal and immigration systems. This context is critical, and news outlets need to provide it. We should look beyond the narrow question of whether 21 Savage committed a crime to the larger question of how and why black immigrants become targets for deportation out of proportion to other immigrants on account of their skin color.

As is the case far too often in our country, it takes a tragedy, or high-profile case to shed a light on an important issue. 21 Savage is hardly the only black immigrant facing deportation, but he faces the same inhumane conditions as other detainees. According to his lawyers, he was held in 23-hour lockdown in one of the worst for-profit immigrant jails in our country—Irwin County Detention Center—while in ICE detention.

21 Savage is out of detention for now.  But he is still at risk for deportation, and it could take months and even years for his immigration case to come to a conclusion. Unlike many immigrants facing deportation, 21 Savage has a team of lawyers working on his case. He has the financial resources to afford legal counsel (immigrants in detention are not given court-appointed lawyers), and he had the backing of a coalition of organizers and celebrities circulating petitions and holding rallies to secure his release from detention.

However his financial status, stardom, and influence on our culture weren’t enough to prevent him for being detained, and he may still yet be deported.

When radio hosts, TV anchors, and pundits ask why 21 Savage didn’t use his money to fix his immigration status sooner? They are exposing how ill-prepared they are for these conversations, just as much as the makers of those memes are. It is worth nothing that in addition to having lived in the United States since he was seven, 21 Savage has a pending U-Visa application.

Journalists should examine how they botched this story, and how their errors are a symptom of the larger role the media plays in creating narratives that dehumanize immigrants and black people in America. “News outlets are complicit in the criminalization of immigrants and people of color by publishing stories without taking the time to check their sources or facts,” Eller added, “as proven by their rush to judgment and knee-jerk reporting early on in this story.”

They owed 21 Savage better, and they owe the rest of us better, too.