21 Savage’s Case Is a Textbook Example of Why ICE Is Worthless

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s arrest by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on Sunday came entirely out of left field. The musician, whose given name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, had long claimed to be born in Georgia, but according to ICE, he is a UK citizen who legally came to the U.S. in July 2005 and has been living on an expired visa since July 2006, when he was 13.


The weirdness of the story has dominated the narrative around the case so far. But at its core, 21 Savage’s case is not unlike so many other people who’ve been targeted by ICE, and it’s a perfect example of why the agency is useless: It’s a bureaucracy in search of a problem rather than one that’s responding to them.

In its statements to the press about the arrest—which came after a traffic stop in DeKalb County, GA, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and which an ICE official told CNN was part of a “targeted sting” operation—the agency has made a point of showing that it doesn’t differentiate based on fame or class, although it’s worth noting that the most-high profile arrest it has made is of a black man. “His whole public persona is false,” an ICE official told CNN.

In 21 Savage’s case, he apparently came to the United States when he was just 12 years old (assuming his birthday and ICE’s story is accurate) and his visa expired when he was 13. At the time, there was no Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, and there wouldn’t be for another six years.

What sort of recourse would the government expect someone like Savage, who came here as an actual child, to have? He only got his first record deal two years ago, when he was 24. Was he supposed to show up at an immigration office as an impoverished 18-year-old, as someone who had overstayed his visa for five years at that point, and turn himself in only to be separated from the rest of his family?

Setting aside the “false” “public persona”—which, if true, isn’t a crime—the details of Savage’s case are similar to so many other people who’ve felt ICE’s wrath. In August, the Department of Homeland Security announced that over 700,000 people had overstayed their visas between October 2016 and September 2017; according to the AP, around 40 percent of the estimated 11 million undocumented people in the country came here legally and then overstayed their visas. DHS said last year that it would target these people. (Savage was convicted in Georgia on weed and weapons charges in 2014, according to CNN; his lawyers say his record was expunged.)

This is a stupidly common occurrence. In 2017, over a quarter of all of ICE’s arrests were of people who either had no criminal record or who hadn’t been convicted of any crime. Last year, HuffPost found that two-thirds of everyone arrested by ICE between October 2017 and March 2018 had no criminal convictions at all.


It’s tempting to point to this one case or any of these and say that because the Obama administration didn’t prioritize visa overstays as part of their deportation regime, the real problem lies with the Trump administration’s relentless pursuit of an immigrant-free country. The larger problem, however, is having an agency in the first place whose mission can be significantly warped so that it justifies upending the lives of people who are doing nothing wrong except living here. And while 21 Savage is someone who’s amassed some wealth and thus is much more well-positioned to land on his feet after this, deportation or otherwise, ICE’s targeting of him and others for no real crime except not doing the paperwork just underscores why there’s no need for it to exist in the first place.

Update, 4:51 p.m. ET: In a statement to BuzzFeed News, 21 Savage’s attorney said that his family overstayed their work visas while he was still a minor, and that in 2017 he applied for a U Visa—one “set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity,” according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.


“Mr. Abraham-Joseph has never hid his immigration status from the US government,” lawyer Dina LaPolt said in the statement.


We’ve also corrected the spelling of Savage’s legal name to match what’s in the statement; since his arrest, various outlets have identified him as Sha Yaa and Shayaa.

News editor, Splinter