21 Savages detainment by ICE is emblematic of the broader experiences of undocumented Black immigrants in the US
By Nick Rodrigo
On the January 29th, the award winning hip-hop artist 21 Savage (real name Sha Yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph) performed “A lot” from his number one album “I am > I was”. In his physical rendition for the Today Show, 21 delivered a third verse addressing immigration and the Flint water crisis:
Lights was out, the gas was off so we had to boil up the water
Went through some things, but I couldn’t imagine my kids stuck at the border
Flint still need water,
Five days later, Abraham-Joseph and fellow rapper Young Nudy (Quantavious Thomas) pulled over by DeKalb county police in Atlanta. Thomas, a target of a criminal arrest for assault and gang charges, was booked into DeKalb jail. After conducting background checks of Abraham-Thomas’ immigration status, standard operating procedure in the state of Georgia, it was discovered that the rapper was actually a British citizen. Further investigation, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency Brian Cox indicated that. “Mr. Abraham-Joseph is unlawfully present in the U.S. and also a convicted felon. Mr. Abraham-Joseph initially entered the U.S. legally in July 2005, but subsequently failed to depart under the terms of his nonimmigrant visa” – he is currently being held in ICE custody, without Bond. In a press release, Abraham-Josephs lawyer noted that his client is awaiting a U-Visa application as the victim of a crime, and his detention is based on incorrect information about a prior charge. Although his lawyers seem to be working overtime, the threat of deportation looms large.
In his today show performance, Abraham-Joseph touched on two political crisis’s afflicting this country -the Flint Michigan water crisis, and the hardening nativist agenda gripping immigration policy. The former has widely been acknowledged as disproportionately effecting African American communities in Flint. However the enforcement of the deportation regime also asymmetrically effects Black immigrants, Abraham-Josephs entrance into this unforgiving system is but a high profile example of a common experience of undocumented Black immigrants.
Estimates suggest that there are around 575,000 Black unauthorized immigrants in the United States as of 2013 – most coming from countries in the Global South. In comparison, there are 1.4 million Asians and more than 8 million from Mexico and Latin America. This large pool of undocumented immigrants from Asia and Latin America has resulted in vast array of support networks and programs in which take into account the culturally and materially specific needs of these communities. These systems of support have not emerged to the same level for Black undocumented migrants, and their specific experiences with the criminal justice and immigration system, does not receive the proper coverage.
The policy of deporting immigrants for criminal acts is as long as the history of forced removals itself, but the process of sweeping undocumented migrants into removal proceedings through criminalization on an industrial scale began with the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA). Legal immigrants, including green-card holders, could be deported for a vast array of crimes, some of which are not even violent, with IIRIRA making many of them being applied retroactively – in the decades that followed a “crimmigration” regime crystalized.
Studies suggest that across the US, black people are more likely to be stopped, arrested and incarcerated. Black people are arrested at 2.5 times the rate of whites and are more likely than whites to be sentenced to prison and less likely to be sentenced to probation. Through this hyper-criminalization, Black immigrants are disproportionately vulnerable to deportation. The criminal justice system acts like a funnel for Black citizens into the prison system, and black denizens into the immigration system. President Obama’s focus on undocumented migrants with criminal convictions did not address the structural and pervasive anti blackness baked into the practices of local law enforcement. Traffic stops by local law enforcement have been highlighted by Black Lives Matter activists to be flash point for police brutality of Black citizens, but for undocumented migrants it can be the beginning of the long path to deportation – as documented by a 2016 report by the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the NYU Legal Clinic. Within the undocumented migrant population, individuals are 3.5 times more likely to be detained for an immigration violation than a criminal conviction –but Caribbean immigrants are twice more likely to be detained for criminal convictions than a violation of immigration laws. Finally, it is worth breaking down the numbers when it comes to the types of deportation orders black immigrants’ face. Returns, as defined by DHS, as the “confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States not based on an order of removal”. Typically a returned immigrant can reapply to enter the US, but may face additional bars upon returning. For DHS, a removal is defined as the “compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the US based on an order of removal”. Deportations based on a removal order contain bars to reentry =, from five years to life, as well as enhanced criminal penalties if the removed immigrant reenters without authorization – this can be up to twenty years in jail if deported on the basis of an aggravated felony. In 2013 three quarters of black immigrants were removed on criminal grounds, in contrast to less than half of immigrants overall.
Donald Trump’s 2016 election platform had a number of policy pledges to be tough on crime and immigration, playing on the moral panic of his base around a “deviant fifth column” within the US, and “hordes of immigrant gangs” amassed at the border. These twin projects are having a disastrous consequences for undocumented migrants across the board, but for Black migrants it is being compounded by historical weight of a biased criminal justice system and police enforcement hard wired to control and brutalize black bodies. In recent days, celebrities have come out in support of Joseph-Abrahams, with Grammy winning rapper Cardi B noting that her fellow artist has deep ties to Atlanta, despite not being from there:
This final fact is also true of undocumented black migrants facing deportation – they have well established community ties. As mass support builds for Abrahams-Joseph, off the back of his stardom and the high profile nature of his case, we must remember the particularities of his experience to black migrants, and incorporate those into our broader campaigns for immigration justice.
SIGN THE PETITION TO STOP THE DEPORTATION OF 21 SAVAGE HERE