When the news broke that ICE officials had detained She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, better known as the rapper 21 Savage, the jokes were plentiful. The idea of an Atlanta rapper turning out to be London-raised sparked commentary from all over the political spectrum and — at least according to Demi Lovato, in a since deleted tweet from a since deleted Twitter account — livened up what had apparently been a dull Super Bowl Sunday.
But as many have rightly pointed out since, there’s nothing funny about 21’s arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to a statement from his attorney, he is currently subject to mandatory detention and being refused a bond hearing, which could mean he will have to fight his entire immigration case while in a cage. He risks deportation from the country he has called home for the past 15 years, and separation from his family. Those are objectively horrific consequences, full stop.
His troubles are also a perfect example of the ways in which black immigrants in America are marginalized. For better or worse, immigration in the US continues to be seen as a predominantly Hispanic/Latinx issue — understandably, given that 4 of the 10 nations that send the most immigrants to the US are in Latin America. But black immigrants make up 10% of the total foreign-born population in the US and experience unique challenges. To some, 21’s plight may seem less visceral, thanks in part to him being from another rich country. But besides the differences in country of origin, and perhaps also in current net wealth, other aspects of 21 Savage’s immigration story are depressingly similar to those facing many black immigrants.
It’s no coincidence that 21’s prior (and, according to his attorney, expunged) felony drug convictions were the only other additional details that ICE added in its statement about 21’s arrest. This was not just an attempt by ICE to paint as unsympathetic a portrait of 21 Savage as possible. Black people are over-represented in the criminal legal system, where they are likely to suffer worse outcomes than other racial groups at every stage, from arrest rates to sentencing. The same relentless machine that disproportionately targets black people as a whole in America also disproportionately affects black immigrants, and makes them more vulnerable to deportation.
Interactions with the criminal system are often the events that kick off the deportation process for immigrants. There are two primary ways a person can face deportation proceedings: either by violating civil immigration laws, or by being convicted of certain crimes. The laws defining these crimes are distressingly vague and, depending on how they’re interpreted, offenses as minor as turnstile jumping could put you at risk. There is also no time limit between when a person is charged and convicted for a crime and when ICE can begin its deportation process, meaning that people who committed crimes years ago, paid their debt to society, and meaningfully changed their lives may nevertheless face possible arrest by ICE and deportation proceedings decades later. The crime-based grounds for deportability apply to all immigrants in the US, including green-card holders.
As a result, behavior that would merit no more than a slap on the wrist for a US citizen could mean deportation for an immigrant. For example, marijuana use — if admitted to a US immigration official, that could make a green card holder deportable, even if it was consumed in a state where it is legal. For young black people who come to this country as children, like 21 Savage, who are disproportionately stopped by the police, and in particular disproportionately arrested for drug offenses, these differences have terrible consequences.
A report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and the NYU School of Law’s Immigration Rights Clinic (of which I am a proud alumna) provides a comprehensive analysis of the overcriminalization of black immigrants in the US. While they make up only 7.2% of the noncitizen population, they make up 20.3% of immigrants facing deportation on criminal grounds — about twice the rate for all immigrants.
Another aspect of 21 Savage’s experience, mandatory detention, may also be linked to the increased criminalization of black immigrants. If black immigrants are more likely to have criminal grounds for deportation, then they may also — although this has not yet been definitively shown — be more likely to face mandatory detention for the duration of their immigration proceedings. Mandatory detention, a policy derived from 1996 immigration reform laws, requires immigrants convicted of certain types of crimes in the past to be detained. Just as incarceration during the course of one’s criminal case increases the chances that a person might give up and take a plea bargain, detention during an immigration proceeding may pressure immigrants to voluntarily leave the US rather than continue to fight their case.
This all has personal resonance for me. Like 21 Savage, I also immigrated to the US when I was 12 years old, from the UK. Like 21 Savage, the English accent I had when I came here is completely gone now, hastily set aside in an ill-fated attempt to assimilate. And also like 21 Savage, I came here as a black person with my parents, utterly clueless and unaware of the immigration laws. It wasn’t until I was doing immigration work in law school that I realized how vulnerable I could have been. Even as a green card holder, if I had acted out as a teenager and ended up having a brush with the law, I could have been at risk of deportation.
A combination of luck and circumstance allowed me to claim this country as my own, to become a US citizen, and to thus have all the privileges that come with it. 21 Savage has not been as lucky. There are still reasons to hope and expect that he may triumph in his immigration case — being a famous rapper may help — but for him, like many other black immigrants, the challenges are significant. Rather than ridicule him, his plight should make us more aware that immigration is also a black issue, and that a core part of any immigration reform must also include reform of our criminal system.
Dami Obaro is an attorney at the Urban Justice Center.