At the beginning of 2019, 21 Savage was the most popular artist in the country: I Am > I Was, his most recent album, spent two weeks on top of the Billboard 200.
Less than a month later, the rapper, whose real name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, is in danger of being kicked out of the country. On Sunday, he was taken into custody by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which claims Abraham-Joseph, a British national, has long overstayed his visa and thus is eligible for deportation.
This swing is singular, even by the eyebrows-permanently-raised standards of modern politics. Abraham-Joseph’s rap career was inextricably linked with Atlanta, and hardly any of his fans knew he was born outside the U.S. (Though there had been rumors on Twitter, circulating for years, that were tracked down after the news of his arrest broke). And while Abraham-Joseph wasn’t always known for vocal political statements in interviews, his fame — the great single “A Lot” is Number 26 this week — ensured that his case has become a referendum on the aggressive anti-immigrant policies pursued by ICE under the Trump administration. Black Lives Matter, Jay-Z and Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson have all offered Abraham-Joseph public support.
Despite all this attention, the actual facts surrounding his arrest remain opaque, if not downright contradictory. Abraham-Joseph was apprehended in Atlanta the same day as another rapper, Young Nudy, but the connection between the two arrests remains unclear. ICE has claimed Abraham-Joseph has a previous conviction, but the rapper’s legal team says he does not. ICE said Abraham-Joseph came to the U.S. at age 14, but his legal team said he arrived when he was seven.
Adding to the confusion, even lawyers who appear to be on the same side don’t always present the same information in the same way or agree on the correct interpretation of past events. In a statement on Tuesday, Abraham-Joseph’s lawyers said he applied for a U visa, a status that protects victims of crime and their families, in 2017. (The rapper was shot six times in 2013 during an attack that killed a friend.) A statement on Wednesday from entertainment lawyer Alex Spiro, who was brought on by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation as added legal firepower, said that Abraham-Joseph actually applied for the status in 2015 and then reapplied in 2017. (Spiro is famous for having famous clients, not for his work on immigration law.) Similarly, in a subsequent interview with Complex, Spiro said that Abraham-Joseph’s previous conviction had been vacated. But the lawyer who did the work of expunging that charge for the rapper tells Rolling Stone that is not correct.
If there’s one thing that’s crystal clear — and essential to the outcome of the case — it’s that Georgia has one of the worst environments for immigrants in the country. “Georgia has been at the forefront of the anti-immigrant crackdown,” says Azadeh Shahshahani, who spent seven years as National Security and Immigrants’ Rights Project Director for the ACLU of Georgia. “Georgia is on a whole other scale when it comes to devising new ways to punish immigrants.”
A report co-authored by Shahshahani noted that “the regional ICE office in Atlanta made nearly 80 percent more arrests in the first half of 2017 than it did in the same period the previous year, representing the largest increase of any field office in the country.” And when those arrested immigrants appear in front of a judge, their chances of reprieve are slim. “The immigration court itself is one of the worst in the U.S.” says Julio Moreno, who practices immigration law in Georgia. “The denial rates here are a lot higher than everywhere else — the asylum denial rate is in the 90s, where the national average is around 45 to 50 percent.”
That almost certainly means it will be an uphill slog for Abraham-Joseph’s team. “His mom came in with an H-2 visa, an employment type visa for service industries,” Moreno explains. “21 entered on an H-4, which is a derivative of that for a child. His mother just overstayed her visa. After a certain amount of time, you’re supposed to go back; she never left. That itself is an immigration violation. That’s the main problem he has.”
The first step in a case like this is an initial custody determination, according to Jeremy McKinney, a North Carolina immigration attorney and national officer of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). “We know the result: They chose to detain without bond,” McKinney says. “But from what 21 Savage’s attorneys have said, he is eligible for bond.”
This is troubling, but not surprising. “The southeast region of ICE, which carries the Carolinas and Georgia, is extremely active, they’re very aggressive, and they tend to err on the side of detention,” McKinney says.
Abraham-Joseph’s detainment without bond might stem, in part, from the rapper’s previous run-in with the law. ICE told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Abraham-Joseph was part of a felony drug case in 2014. The rapper’s attorneys are adamant that their client has a clean record. “To be clear, he has no criminal convictions,” Charles Kuck, the lead attorney for Abraham-Joseph, wrote in an email to Rolling Stone.
The 2014 incident resulted in a misdemeanor sentence for possession of a controlled substance, according to lawyer Jacoby Hudson. In 2017, Abraham-Joseph brought in Hudson to get that charge expunged by filing the paperwork with the Fulton County District Attorney’s office.
However, contrary to some reports, “the sentence wasn’t vacated,” Hudson says. “It was just sealed. So it’s basically saying, he doesn’t have a criminal history for it no more… Vacated would mean [Abraham-Joseph] never took the plea. He did take a plea. He completed the terms of his sentence [12 months of probation], and that was it.”
This small dispute over legalese may seem absurd to anyone without a law degree, but it can make a crucial difference in immigration court. “Expungement really has no value for immigration proceedings,” Moreno explains. “An expungement is more for if you had a DUI on your record a few years ago, and you expunge it, it may not come up when somebody does a background check. But for immigration purposes, an expungement is still a conviction. The only way to avoid having that is if you vacate that conviction based on constitutional grounds.”
Even if Abraham-Joseph remains detained, his attorneys can push for a bond motion. “In a bond hearing, an immigration judge is only supposed to be looking at two things,” McKinney explains. “Number One, is that person a danger to the community? Number Two, is that person a flight risk?”
When the judge considers the first factor, Abraham-Joseph’s 2014 incident might come up for review once again. “At this point in the case [in Atlanta], the burden is really low on the government,” adds Moreno. “And with the judges we have here, it’s going to be very tough to convince them [of Abraham-Joseph’s good standing] after he entered a plea [in 2014] and the police report [from that incident] more than likely shows that there was a significant amount of drugs in his vehicle.” TMZ also reported on Thursday that the police believe Abraham-Joseph was in possession of a loaded gun at the time of his arrest; the rapper’s lawyers said the weapon is “not his.”
If Abraham-Joseph is still denied bond, he has another option: what is known as “cancellation of removal.” For that, he must be able to meet four criteria, according to McKinney: “10 years of continuous physical presence, good moral character for the past 10 years, no disqualifying criminal convictions and a showing the applicant’s citizen or resident parent/spouse/child would suffer exceptional and extremely unusual hardship [in his absence].” McKinney says it would still probably take more than six months for Abraham-Joseph’s case to be heard.
21 Savage’s community service work could help establish his “good moral character.” Drew Findling, a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta who has represented Offset, Gucci Mane and others (though not 21 Savage), was present at an event in Atlanta last year where 21 Savage spoke to “over 600 high-school students” about financial literacy. “He gave a heartfelt presentation that was well-received by the Atlanta community,” Findling says. “And by the way, that program was sponsored by the prosecutor’s office in Fulton County.”
Even if Abraham-Joseph is let out on bail, it’s still unlikely that anything will happen quickly. “It will take years to resolve,” McKinney predicts, “because our courts are so backlogged right now.”
The potential path to lawful permanent residence that Abraham-Joseph’s lawyers have emphasized, and the rapper has applied for, is what’s known as a U visa. These are reserved for foreign nationals (and their qualifying family members) who have been victims of serious crimes and subsequently assist law enforcement with investigating crime in some way. The cooperation must be certified by the police, the prosecutor’s office or a judge.
Moreno estimates there are over 190,000 applications pending for a yearly quota of 10,000 U visas. There is a wait for initial approval that can stretch to several years, after which applicants are considered “deferred action” and are permitted to work legally. Attorneys say after that it can take another eight to 10 years to get the actual status, because of the significant backlog of applicants.
Abraham-Joseph and his fellow applicants volunteer their personal information and illegal status in a bid for legal residency, but in the past, this was considered a relatively safe act. That may no longer be the case, according to some immigration lawyers. “It used to be that once you were in that queue you’re not really [seen as] a risk, you’re not a priority [for ICE],” says Michele Lampach, an immigration lawyer for UnLocal, a non-profit law firm focused on immigration. “I think in this administration, all bets are off.”
Under the Trump administration, a new policy has been implemented that places applicants into deportation proceedings if their applications are rejected. In addition, some lawyers are concerned that U visa applicants could be targeted by immigration enforcement. “The service center that handles those visas usually handles victims of crimes and victims of domestic violence and they rarely share that information. It used to be clear that they would never share that information with law enforcement,” says Moreno. “Within the last two years, under this administration, there have been rumors that they are no longer complying with that and they are willing to share some information from law enforcement, especially if there are criminal issues or open warrants.”
The U visa is not the only means by which Abraham-Joseph could stay in the U.S. legally. Attorneys also mention the O visa, which is reserved for someone “who possesses extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business, or athletics, or who has a demonstrated record of extraordinary achievement in the motion picture or television industry and has been recognized nationally or internationally for those achievements.” Abraham-Joseph’s home would have to be abroad, but he would be able to come to the U.S. for a maximum of three years with the possibility of unlimited one-year extensions.
“That, to me, is actually a good potential option, assuming he doesn’t have challenging criminal stuff [on his record],” Lampach says — she believes it would be easier for Abraham-Joseph to prove his eligibility for the O than to prove “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship to his qualifying relatives,” the legal standard. Moreno agrees. “That type of visa has a waiver that you can [use to] waive a lot of the grounds of deportability that he has,” the attorney explains. “That may be a better option for him, applying for that and maybe being able to come back temporarily to the U.S.”
If it’s not already obvious, the U.S. immigration system is Byzantine and fraught with deportation landmines. “It’s certainly discriminatory, and [it] has an impact of separating families and has for a very long time,” says Lampach. “If you have violated immigration laws in particular ways, there is often no relief available to you. It’s an incredibly broken system for that reason, [one] that doesn’t really make sense with the lives that people live in the United States.”
Multiple lawyers tell Rolling Stone that Abraham-Joseph’s attorney, Charles Kuck, is one of the best in the nation when it comes to immigration law. Still, Moreno says, “it’s gonna be a very tough case.”
“It’s so confusing, it’s so punitive, it’s so draconian,” says Lampach. “That’s the baseline for this system.”
Additional reporting by Simon Vozick-Levinson