When Grammy–nominated rapper 21 Savage (real name She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph) was arrested on Sunday morning in Atlanta, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) alleged that the 26-year-old had been living in the country illegally for most of his teenage and adult life. The arrest, which quickly drew ire from many within the music industry, will likely preclude Savage from attending the Grammys this Sunday night. He collaborated on Post Malone’s hit “Rockstar,” which is nominated for record of the year, while his own successful second solo album, I Am > I Was, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album charts in December.
As his legal team scrambles to post bond for the young rap star, he remains in ICE custody as perhaps the most famous of the estimated 4.5 U.S. immigrants who have overstayed their visas. On the heels of Jay-Z hiring a lawyer to assist in the case, we’ve answered questions about Savage’s arrest, immigration status, and whether the up-and-comer could really be deported like so many other “Dreamers” under the Trump administration’s newest crackdown.
Why was 21 Savage arrested?
The rap star was arrested early in the morning on Super Bowl Sunday in Atlanta. ICE alleges that Savage has been living in the U.S. illegally after his visa ran out in 2006.
So is 21 Savage actually in the country illegally from the UK?
Yes. Both his attorneys and Reuters confirmed that the rapper was born on October 22, 1992 in Newham, a borough of London, according to a birth certificate from a registry office in London. His attorneys say that he entered the U.S. legally in 2004.
“Mr. Abraham-Joseph was born in the United Kingdom,” they said in a statement on Tuesday. “Mr. Abraham-Joseph arrived legally in the United States at the age of seven under an H-4 visa. He remained in the United States until June 2005, when he departed for approximately one month to visit the United Kingdom. He returned to the United States under a valid H-4 visa on July 22, 2005. Mr. Abraham-Joseph has been continuously physically present in the United States for almost 20 years, except for a brief visit abroad.”
Since he came to the U.S., Savage has been living in the Atlanta area, where he is intimately involved in the music scene. In fact, the revelation that he’s British-born has come as a shock to many in the music industry, as well as to his biggest fans. An uproar ignited online this week, with critics mocking Savage. It even spilled over to celebrities like Demi Lovato, who ended up quitting social media over the issue.
Why was 21 Savage arrested now, after having lived in the U.S. for so long?
It’s believed that Savage may have ended up on ICE’s radar after he applied for a U visa in 2017. A U visa is a non-immigrant visa that’s reserved for “victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials.” It’s approved for an estimated 10,000 people annually, according to The Hill.
It’s likely that when Savage was arrested in 2014 on felony drug charges, he may have simply told authorities that he was from Atlanta, which probably didn’t raise any red flags at the time. ICE has not said anything about the timing of the arrest, just that it was preplanned.
How was 21 Savage able to remain in the U.S. for so long?
Many undocumented immigrants that overstay their visas live and work in the U.S., often with great success, without drawing unwanted attention from law enforcement for many years. According to the Center for Migration Studies in New York, between 2008 and 2014, people who overstayed their visas represented about two-thirds of all undocumented immigrants nationwide. Savage even took flying lessons and piloted his own plane in Florida at one point, presumably without the proper documentation.
What’s unique about this particular case is that Savage was previously arrested and convicted in Fulton County, Georgia, on felony drug charges. The charges, to which he pled guilty, were eventually expunged from his criminal record last year. ICE said in a statement on Sunday just hours after the arrest that the rapper’s one-time felony status and unlawful presence in the U.S. prompted the swift and admittedly targeted operation.
Even though Savage had already applied for a visa, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates that an immigrant can wait as long as three years or more before even being placed on a waiting list.
To his credit, it appears that Savage kept his native roots pretty well hidden from most people. In fact, many of his songs make reference to growing up in East Atlanta’s Zone 6, an area that’s also home to Gucci Mane. On his track, “Bank Account,” Savage says he’s “straight up out the six.”
Why did 21 Savage stay illegally?
The rapper’s lawyers argue that Savage was a minor at the time that he and his family traveled to the U.S. and ultimately overstayed their visas. “He, like almost two million other children,” his legal team said in a statement, “was left without legal status through no fault of his own.” They are suggesting that because he came to the country at such a young age he may not have had the understanding or means to correct the immigration problem. They will likely point to the pending visa application as proof to his desire to make things right.
Has 21 Savage had other run-ins with the law?
In addition to his arrest on felony drug charges in 2014, Savage’s early life was punctuated by a great loss after one of his brothers was killed in a shooting during a drug deal gone wrong. By the time he was in seventh grade, he was also banned permanently from every school in the DeKalb County District for gun possession. He spent time during his teen years in a youth detention center.
Savage dropped out of school during his freshman year of high school to join a local street gang associated with the Bloods, becoming a drug dealer mostly selling marijuana. He later admitted to having taken part in other crimes, like robbery and grand theft auto. He lost his good friend and partner in crime during a violent shoot-out.
In 2013, just after turning 21, Savage was shot six times by rival gang members (his moniker commemorates the shooting). One of his brothers was also killed in an attempted robbery during this same period. The experiences, he has said, led him to music.
Interestingly, in 201, Savage reported to police that someone had kicked in his condo door and stolen a handgun, Louis Vuitton luggage, $345,000 cash, a Rolex watch, and other jewelry. It’s unusual for someone with an undocumented status to contact law enforcement for any reason, which is why lawyers may decide to make note of this, going to show that the rapper didn’t have a good understanding of the risks he truly faced as an undocumented immigrant.
Savage didn’t do himself any favors last year when he pulled a firearm at a pool party, which was captured on video.
Where is 21 Savage now?
As soon as he was arrested, he was denied bail and placed in deportation proceedings in ICE custody in Georgia. His lawyers are now arguing that he should be entitled to bond because Savage poses “no flight risk” or “danger to the community.” They said in a statement, “ICE can only continue to detain individuals who are a threat to the community … obviously our client is not a flight risk, as he is widely recognizable, and a prominent member of the music industry.”
One of his attorney’s, Charles H. Kuck, is asking the court for Savage’s release, calling the arrest and incarceration a “civil law violation.” He said, “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.”
In a tweet, one of his managers, Mega Meezy, revealed that the rapper is on lockdown for 23 hours of the day with no TV or any means of communication besides a few ten-minute phone calls.
When was 21 Savage last seen in public?
Savage appeared a few days before his arrest at the Super Bowl Music Fest, a pre-Super Bowl event at State Farm Arena, where Ludacris, Lil Yachty, Lil Baby, and Migos also performed.
Will 21 Savage be at the Grammys on Sunday?
Not unless his lawyers are able to secure bail, which is looking increasingly unlikely. One of his attorneys, Dina LaPolt, said in a statement, “We are working diligently to get Mr. Abraham-Joseph out of detention while we work with authorities to clear up any misunderstandings.” There’s been no word on whether this will happen in time for the awards show.
How can ICE arrest 21 Savage as a felon if his felony record was expunged?
According to Kuck, ICE’s arrest was “based upon incorrect information about prior criminal charges.” He said that because Savage’s felony record was expunged, it should not be used as evidence in the latest arrest.
In reality, different states actually have myriad interpretations of “expungement,” or the official deletion of a criminal record. Within the criminal court, for example, an expungement would mean that someone is understood to have never committed the crime. But according to immigration law, a deletion of a criminal conviction record doesn’t always mean the same thing. It really depends on different factors in the cases at hand, like the nature of the crimes and even the sentences imposed. In Savage’s case, a felony might not be taken so lightly even though it was technically expunged. It could impact whether he is ultimately approved for a visa or, worse case, deported.
The law is really on the federal government’s side in that any immigrant convicted of a crime in the U.S. can be deported, including any foreign national living and working in the U.S. with a lapsed nonimmigrant visa. Because Savage pled guilty to a felony while he was in the U.S., the federal government is of the opinion that he essentially forfeited his rights by violating the conditions of his visa and the law of the land. His other violation was, ironically, overstaying his visa in the first place.
What would it take for 21 Savage to be granted a visa now?
His lawyers are surely working on his pending visa application. They will likely seek a Cancellation of Removal from an immigration judge, which would mean that Savage could potentially apply for a green card even as an undocumented immigrant. The only problem is that this type of approval is tough to come by — the standards for the cancellation of removal are quite strict, especially for someone with a felony.
Savage is receiving a lot support from people in high places, which could have a big impact. The New Yorker recently called his arrest “shameful,” while Georgia congressman Hank Johnson submitted a letter of support this week to the immigration judge overseeing this case. He asked for Savage’s release from detention, saying, “He spends his time giving back to the community and supporting and promoting the betterment of our youth.”
The rapper’s well-known charitable work is also likely to come into play. One of his attorneys told Channel 2 Action News in Atlanta that Savage is a “role model” who “is actively working in the community, leading programs to help underprivileged youths in financial literacy.” Savage appeared on Ellen last spring to present a check for $21,000 to help young people create bank accounts. He’s also given free school supplies to thousands of DeKalb County students through his Leading by Example Foundation.
Several organizations, such as Black Lives Matter, have introduced petitions to #Free21Savage. Artists including T.I. and Cardi B have also shown their support on social media.
Perhaps most importantly, Savage has strong ties in the U.S., including three children (two sons and one daughter) who were born here to a mother who is a lawful permanent resident.
Can’t 21 Savage get a special “celebrity” visa?
Many celebrities opt for the P1 work visa, which is essentially available to anyone with “extraordinary ability.” While applicants for these visas are often in the arts, they don’t have to be. An athlete or even a scientist could apply for this type of visa, provided they are recognized for their acclaim worldwide.
Another type of visa is the B1, which is essentially a temporary business visa that requires an applicant to prove to the U.S. government that he is doing legitimate business here. For the B1 to be approved, an applicant must establish that he entered the U.S. for a legitimate business reason for a specific time period, that he has the financial ability to pay for his stay, and that he has a legal residence outside the U.S.
While he is financially viable, at least two of these requirement could pose a major problem for Savage, who came to the country as a kid (he wasn’t in business at the time) and does not seem to have any permanent residence outside of the U.S.
What could work in his favor, however, is that Savage has several “qualifying” relatives already living here, according to the terms of the U visa for which he’s already applied. This could lead his attorneys to consider an I-601 waiver, which is designed specifically for anyone seeking an immigrant visa or an adjustment to their current immigrant status, even if that status is “inadmissible.”
Right now, Savage’s best chance is for the U.S. government to consider granting him at least a temporary stay while his U visa application is reviewed. He may also want to show the court that his relatives would suffer extreme hardship if he were to be deported. Having proof of employment (i.e., a record contract) could also work in his favor.
Can’t 21 Savage’s record label help him secure a visa?
That’s likely what’s been going on behind the scenes for at least two years. When Savage signed with Epic Records in 2017, he also applied for the U visa. This was the first and only time we know of that he attempted to secure the proper paperwork after his visa lapsed. The timing suggests it’s very likely that Epic played at least some role in encouraging the young rapper to legitimize his stay. It would be in the company’s interest, after all, for their artist to be able to tour outside the U.S., something he has so far avoided.
Can 21 Savage still be deported if he has a visa application pending?
In the past, people usually have not been deported while they have awaited the results of their visa applications, but that’s changing as ICE cracks down harder on undocumented immigrants. If someone is in the U.S. illegally, they are always at risk of being placed in removal or deportation proceedings.
How long before there’s a decision?
It’s hard to say for sure. There are many similar cases pending around the country, some of which have been in process for years. The fact that Savage is a celebrity could potentially accelerate the process — whether that means the feds agree to bond, approve his visa, or, in the worse case, make him a very high-profile example by deporting him.
How long could 21 Savage stay in the U.S. if he’s granted a new visa?
If approved, immigration would grant him a new U visa for four years. He would also have the right to apply for Lawful Permanent Residence three years from the start date of this new visa. This application could lead to his becoming a lawful American citizen if he so chooses.
What could happen to 21 Savage’s three children?
Because Savage’s three children were born in the U.S. to an American citizen (their mother), they are already considered U.S. citizens. If their father is deported, they do not face any danger of also being deported, though they would obviously be separated from their dad.
What could happen if 21 Savage is actually deported?
If 21 Savage is deported, he could face a ten-year ban on returning to the U.S. Deportation could also make it a lot more challenging for Savage to ever apply for a new visa or permanent residency in the U.S.