21 Savage’s Citizenship Saga and Becoming American

We got Savage.” This is what She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, better known as 21 Savage, last recalls hearing as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents drew their weapons before arresting him on Feb. 3. He spent the next week and a half sequestered in solitary confinement weighing the gravity of his detention, which ended with his release on $100,000 bond. He now faces the imminent threat of deportation.

When first announced, the entire scenario seemed ludicrous. The notion that 21 Savage was not welcome in Atlanta perplexed many, especially considering his name has become synonymous with the city where “the players play.” Nevertheless, ICE agents arrested him following what they referred to as a “targeted operation.” The agency further alleged that he is an unlawfully present United Kingdom national.” The controversy encircling 21 Savage centers on the notion of what it means to be American, who makes that determination, and why.

When ABC News’s Linsey Davis asked whether he feared deportation after recently regaining his freedom, Savage quipped, “Yeah, but I feel like I done been through so much in my life, like, I learned to embrace the times when I’m down ‘cause they always build me up and take me to a new level in life.” While 21 Savage may have accepted the challenges before him, his entanglement with our nation’s conception of citizenship has become more difficult to embrace.

21 Savage is American. Although he originally hails from the United Kingdom, the brusque rapper eventually departed for the United States in 1999 as a 7-year-old child and currently resides in Atlanta. Dina LaPolt, a member of 21 Savage’s legal team, said in a statement following his arrest that Savage “left without legal status through no fault of his own … as a minor his family overstayed work visas.” Charles Kuck, another member of the legal team, noted 21 Savage was 12 when his immigration status expired.

Notwithstanding these trivial technicalities, which millions of US residents and so-called Dreamers face, 21 Savage is American. He spent his formative years in the US and has resided here for two decades. His friends and his family live in the US. He received his education in the US. He earns his living and pays taxes here as well. America is the only home 21 Savage knows.

As Julissa Arce wrote in Crooked, “The United States notoriously demands that immigrants assimilate to American culture, learn how to speak English, and renounce ties to their home countries. So why do we feel fooled when an immigrant, like 21 Savage, lacks an accent, reps the American city he grew up in, and not only embraces ‘the culture’ but helps to create it?” Why is 21 Savage not American?

The 14th Amendment and its vast promises proscribe the protections of citizenship afforded to all Americans. It protects citizens from the assault of any state law that may abridge their privileges or immunities, shields them from any deprivation of “life, liberty and property” absent due process, and promises equal protection under the laws. The 14th Amendment’s allure then revolves around the inherent promise that all Americans may lay claim to the rights and privileges enumerated in the Constitution. The promise of inclusion beckons: it entices scores of immigrants to brave turbulent waters or hostile border patrols in search of American shores and soil in pursuit of life anew in a “more perfect union.”

In their article, “Centering the Immigrant in the Inter/National Imagination,” Professors Robert S. Chang and Keith Aoki examine the construction of "the immigrant" in the American psyche. The way race colors the American imagination also fabricates a fear of immigration, which subsequently seeks to restrict the flow of nonwhite immigrants. This “foreign-ness then becomes a proxy for questionable immigration status," the report states. It also heightens scrutiny and renders immigrants suspect “at the border, in the workplace, in hospitals, and elsewhere.” This institutionalized fear of foreign-born people of color shapes and reaffirms individual racist beliefs while wielding the power of the law and social policy.

President Trump and his party’s stated concerns over immigration, for example, have little to do with national security, but rather illustrate a preoccupation with the presumption that to be American is to be white. This is why the president referred to several African nations, El Salvador, and Haiti ass—hole countries. It is why the president bemoaned our nation’s lack ofmore people from Norway. And why former House Speaker Paul Ryan, on the eve of his departure from Congress, pushed for thousands of Irish visas as a nod to his ancestral heritage.

Yet Ryan had nothing to say of the cruel death of Jakelin Ameí Rosmery Caal Maquin, the 7-year old who fled her native Guatemala with her parents seeking the same opportunities Ryan’s ancestors found generations before. It is why the president, the GOP, along with their propaganda arm (Fox News) routinely vilify Mexican and Central American migrants. It explains how leading Fox propagandist Tucker Carlson could flippantly suggest immigration makes America “dirtier,” and watch the network offer support for his inflammatory remarks. Its results allow Melania Trump to manipulate the visa system to become a US citizen while the president accuses Mexican immigrants of doing so. Melania Trump’s parents could become US citizens via “chain migration” despite the president specifically, and the GOP more broadly, decrying the process for Mexican immigrants.

The import of the rhetoric and policies are clear: these attitudes exclude people of color and demonstrate obvious societal racism. However, this inflammatory rhetoric and its corresponding policies often overlook the 21 Savages of the world. Roughly 3.8 million Black immigrants currently live in the United States — accounting for 8.7 percent of the nation’s Black population, this figure is nearly triple those from 1980. Of this expansive number of Black immigrants, roughly 575,000 entered the country undocumented. Nevertheless, migrants hailing from Africa, the Caribbean, and Europe rarely enter the national discourse about immigration and the notion of citizenship. They exist outside of the nation’s imagination: not entirely American, and yet not the foreigner our country typically welcomes or eschews. They are often the first slated for deportation but rarely advocated for in similar fashion to their Latin American counterparts.

21 Savage understands this acutely. In a New York Times interview, he said, “My situation is important ‘cause I represent poor black Americans and I represent poor immigrant Americans.” 21 Savage’s legal team added to this sentiment, stating on Facebook, “He will not forget this ordeal or any of the other fathers, sons, family members, and faceless people he was locked up with or that remain unjustly incarcerated across the country.” 21 Savage’s citizenship saga has revealed our faulty immigration system has many more flaws than the casual observer notices — a lot more.


About the Author

Timothy Welbeck is a Civil Rights Attorney, professor of African American Studies, author, and hip-hop artist. He teaches an array of courses at Temple University and Thomas Jefferson University that examine interconnected themes in the African American experience, law, and politics. Timothy's work has appeared in various media outlets, such as the BBC Radio 4, The Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR, The Huffington Post, and REVOLT TV.