When rapper 21 Savage was arrested, misinformation spread through social media. However, while we know the name of this undocumented migrant, the salient facts remain the same.
In 2018, we got trained to associate the phrase “undocumented immigration” with images of the Central American refugee caravan making its way to the US border. When 21 Savage was arrested for overstaying a visa, the word “undocumented” got coupled with something unexpected: Atlanta hip-hop, fame, and success.
People dealt with this radical change in the association they are used to making with the term “undocumented” by gossiping and sharing memes online. In the process, we spread a fair amount of misinformation about migrant identity and US immigration law. Hence this article on three things to keep in mind when thinking about immigration.
The Monday following 21 Savage’s arrest on Super Bowl Sunday, one of my siblings sent me a meme that alluded to the rapper’s migratory status. “He’s one of us,” read the text that went along with it. I struggled to hold back a smile as I got ready for my day.
I also overstayed a visa when I was a minor. I was undocumented for eight years, from ages 14 to 22, and I am from a mixed-status family. When I was a teen, I thought I was the only person in the world with a migratory problem and my goal was to blend in. I wore my whiteness like an invisibility cloak, hiding my migratory status and my true identity. Much like 21 Savage, I passed as a citizen of the United States.
My identity has gotten stuck in that in-between space. Even to this day, I struggle to find an answer when people ask me where I’m from. I feel too distant to proudly claim my place of birth and too “alien” to claim my city, state or country of residence.
As of 2012, there were 3.2 million undocumented children and young adults under the age of 24 living in the United States. We are part of the 1.5 generation, people who were brought to the United States as children and, in most cases, never returned to their country of birth.
First point: Place of origin, nationality and identity are not interchangeable terms
Being an immigrant affects people’s everyday life. But in reality, people who migrated to the United States at a young age are essentially indistinguishable from their peers born on US soil.
21 Savage, whose birth name is Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, was born in London, England. When he was seven years old, Abraham-Joseph moved to Atlanta with his mother who had obtained a US work visa. Abraham-Joseph overstayed an H-4 visa, which is typically issued to family members, spouses or children of visa holders under 21 years of age.
When Abraham-Joseph was 12 years old, he left the United States for a family visit in his country of birth. When he returned, he reentered the country legally, with a visa, and was given permission to be in the United States for one year. After this time was up, he was expected to leave the United States and reapply for a visa if he wished to come back. Abraham-Joseph remained in the United States, where he had lived most of his life, and his visa expired a year later, in 2006. That was 12 years ago.
Abraham-Joseph’s place of birth is London. However, he identifies most with his place of residence of 26 years since childhood, which is the city of Atlanta, Georgia. That is his identity.
Upon 21 Savage’s arrest, Twitter users shared memes that targeted the seemingly disjointed combination of the rapper’s ties to Atlanta’s rap culture (his identity) and London (his place of birth). There were photoshopped images of him in a Victorian wig, a meme that claimed that he writes lyrics with a quill, and an image of the Queen’s Guard with the caption “Slaughter Gang shitt”.
In the midst of the confusion and laughter, a CNN reporter took a swing at the rapper’s identity by tweeting a quote from an alleged ICE spokesman:
BREAKING- @ICEgov spokesman tells me @21savage was taken into custody by ICE. “His whole public persona is false. He actually came to the U.S. from the U.K. as a teen and overstayed his visa.” MORE COMING
— Nick Valencia (@CNNValencia) February 3, 2019
21 Savage’s “persona”—the way he is perceived by others, his identity—is not false. He migrated to the United States as a child and identifies most with the culture of the place he was raised in, which happens to be Atlanta. Place of birth determines parts of a person’s identity, but one’s identity is a complex mix of nature, nurture, and a bit of personal character and style.
Second point: The various documents that legitimise people’s migratory status, like visas, are not easy to obtain and maintain
So, for the next two points, I’ll use bits of a conversation I heard on The Real about 21 Savage’s arrest. The show airs on KPLR-TV and has 490 thousand (as of this writing) views on YouTube.
Jeannie Mai, one of the co-hosts, said, “The weird thing is, when it comes to your visa, it’s based on employment and having sponsors or people being able to vouch that you work here. He’s clearly working. Like, he’s not just chilling, so I wonder how you can let something like that expire.”
Jeannie Mai is not alone in her ignorance. The idea that visas are obtainable and easily renewed is a common misconception, the problem is that she is being irresponsible with her power as a person with a fair amount of influence. Most people I have talked to share a similar view. A close friend told me once, “Just go to the bank and get a new visa!”
So, what are visas? Visas are government endorsements attached to travellers’ passports. Visas typically state that a person is allowed to stay in a country and for how long. The requirement of visas by a destination country varies depending on the relationship with the traveller’s country of origin. For example, when I came to the United States from Argentina, the United States had determined (based on their political relationship with the country and the relatively low number of immigrants at the time) that it did not require a physical visa from Argentine travellers. This is called a visa waiver, and it still gives the traveller an amount of time for their visit, which they are expected to honour. Few countries have that privilege. Argentina no longer does.
In order to travel to the United States, one most likely needs a visa. US visas are issued at the traveller’s country of residence, through an office that is typically the United States consulate, often located in the country’s capital city. To obtain a visa, a person must make an appointment, travel to the city for their appointment, spend money on room and board, and pay the required fees, even if they are denied. Oftentimes, fees and expenses can pose an economic challenge for applicants. For example, in Peru, the minimum wage is 850 soles per month, around $260, and the “tourist” visa application (the cheapest) is $160. Add to that: travel, lodging, food, missing a day’s work, childcare etc. People may save for years, or sell property, to be able to afford the accommodations, fees and lawyers. Then, multiply that by the number of people in that person’s family.
Visa applications have strict requirements, of which I will only explain a few. To qualify for a work visa, an immigrant must have written proof of work. This means that they have to have applied, gone through the interview process and been offered a position. The employer must also sign a document that makes them responsible for the immigrant in the event of adverse health, economic or housing emergency. This is called “sponsorship” and it is one of the hardest documents to obtain.
Most visas are required to be renewed at the country of origin. This means that immigrants may have to leave their jobs in the United States, uproot their children and try their luck at the whole process all over again. This is one of the most difficult decisions an immigrant will have to make. If they choose to leave the United States, they will have to leave their job and go through the whole process again: apply for a job, do the paperwork, and possibly be denied. If they stay in the United States, they know they will not have a chance to “fix” their migratory status, but at least they won’t have to put their family and themselves through relocation.
Several factors come into play in making the life-altering decision of giving up your rights (becoming undocumented) and living in the US under a constant state of uncertainty. For most immigrants, it is not their own safety, health, education and economic future they are worried about, but rather providing their children with the opportunities they know are not available for them in their country of origin. After examining this, or due to other life events, some choose to overstay their allotted time.
Third point: People can just do the DREAM Act/DACA thing
In the same episode of The Real, Loni Love said, “I don’t understand why he was not a DACA.”
I’m only bringing this up because I often come across people who believe the DREAM Act passed and is effective. The DREAM Act was in fact not approved and is not a tool that is available to undocumented youth. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, also known as DACA, did pass and is currently up and running. Having said that, although DACA has provided many undocumented youths with the ability to obtain a fair-paying job, go to college and pursue a career in the field they went to college for, its criteria is narrowly defined in order to exclude a fair amount of people from its benefits.
DACA gives young undocumented folks a way to obtain employment authorisation. DACA has specific restrictions on the age, continuous residence in the United States since first entry, legal entry (despite age of traveller), education, employment and criminal records. From the 3.2 million young undocumented adults living in the United States, only 689,800 were active DACA recipients as of September 4, 2017.
So, no, one cannot just “get” DACA. It is simply not built that way.
21 Savage was released on a $100,000 bond and is currently pleading for cancellation of removal, which has its own set of requirements based on merit, family ties and good moral character. Some argue that the rapper was targeted due to a performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. In it, he performed his hit, A Lot, and changed the lyrics to reflect his views on immigration with the lines, “Been through some things, but I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border.”
DREAMers and other undocumented youth without legal status still have a legitimate fear about clearing their status. That’s why when I heard that ICE and Custom Enforcement agents detained the Atlanta rapper, I felt a weird kind of happiness. I felt that my experience and the experience of my friends and loved ones became more visible and even validated. I thought of the undocumented youth feeling alone, unworthy of success and tired of working towards what seems like an unattainable goal: the recognition of their contributions to the US economy, society and culture. Let’s honour them by using our platforms responsibly. Let’s vow to be more responsibly informed.