Atlanta rapper 21 Savage: Immigration enforcement system ‘broken’

by Jeremy Redmon, AJC

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Grammy-nominated artist speaks out on GMA following release

Atlanta rapper 21 Savage spoke out against the nation’s immigration enforcement Friday morning on Good Morning America, calling it “broken” and adding he fears he could be deported.

The Grammy-nominated musician — who was born She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph — was freed from the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla Wednesday after a federal immigration judge in Atlanta approved his release on a $100,000 bond. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested him Feb. 3, saying he’s a citizen of the United Kingdom who overstayed his visa.

“I don’t think the policy is broken. I feel like the way they enforce the policy is broken,” he said in his first interview since winning his freedom, adding: “I have been here 20 years — 19 years. This is all I know, you know what I am saying? I don’t feel like you should be arrested and put in a place where a murderer would be for just being in the country for too long.”

ICE spokesman Bryan Cox declined Friday to comment on 21 Savage’s case except to say: “The men and women of ICE enforce federal immigration law as passed by Congress.” He emphasized he was speaking in general, not commenting on 21 Savage’s case.

The federal agency has repeatedly said it focuses on detaining and deporting people with criminal records. After his arrest last week, ICE said 21 Savage was convicted of felony drug charges in 2014 in Fulton County. But the rapper’s attorneys have said he has no criminal record. The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office said it could not confirm or deny whether he was convicted, citing Georgia’s first offender law, which allows records to be expunged and sealed.

21 Savage legally came to America on a visa when he was seven, his attorneys said.

“I [didn’t] know what a visa was,” he said. “I was seven when I first came here. I knew I wasn’t born here. But I didn’t know what that meant as far as when I transitioned into an adult how it was going to affect my life. I wasn’t hiding it. But it is like — I didn’t want to get deported.”

21 Savage’s attorneys have also pointed out the musician was arrested just days after he performed live on the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, apparently singing about the plight of immigrant children amid enforcement of President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy on the southwest border. Performing “A Lot,” he sang: “Been through some things but I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border.”

“We believe honestly that he was targeted, of course, like they said,” one of his attorneys, Alex Spiro, told Good Morning America. “And part of the reason, we think, is because he is both a celebrity and they can use this as a way to send a message and also perhaps because of his music.”

“There are a lot of things about this case that are curious and troubling,” Spiro added. “He is somebody who comes here as a young man. He is one of the ‘Dreamers,’ as they are called. And he comes over here and he has a singular offense for marijuana when he is a college-age person – that is vacated and sealed. There is no issue.

“He is getting a visa. He is operating in good faith. He is performing. He is giving back to his community. He has a son. He is a father. And yet they take this unusual step to arrest him the week before the Grammys and not give him bond.”

Asked if ICE targeted him because of his music, 21 Savage said: “My lawyers think that. I don’t really know. I can’t really say. I would see why people would think that. But I really can’t say.”

ICE said last week authorities had been working the case involving 21 Savage “for weeks or months.” Authorities said he was arrested in a “targeted operation” aimed at rapper Young Nudy, whose real name is Quantavious Thomas. DeKalb County police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were involved. 21 Savage happened to be with Thomas.

Thomas is scheduled to attend a bond hearing Tuesday in DeKalb. He faces gang- and fire arm-related charges and an aggravated assault charge.

Asked about his own arrest, 21 Savage said he was “definitely targeted.”

“I was just driving and I just saw guns and blue lights. And then I was in the back of a car and I was gone,” he said. “They just said, ‘We got Savage.’”

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