Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s deportation case caught in court backlog

Grammy-nominated artist has children, seeks to remain in United States

Grammy-nominated rapper 21 Savage drew national attention in February when federal immigration authorities arrested him in Atlanta and disclosed he is actually a citizen of the United Kingdom who overstayed his visa here long ago.

The local musician — his real name is She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph — walked out of a federal immigration detention center in Ocilla days later on a $100,000 bond, fearing he would be separated from his family and deported. But he hasn’t appeared before a federal immigration judge since and still does not have a hearing scheduled in his deportation case, according to his attorney.

The musician is caught in a growing Immigration Court backlog that now totals just over a million cases, roughly double what it was three years ago. That includes 35,115 in Georgia, the ninth-highest number among states, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research organization at Syracuse University. On average, Immigration Court cases remain unresolved for 696 days.

Driven in part by the Trump administration’s clampdown on illegal immigration, the backlog keeps people like Abraham-Joseph in limbo. They can continue living here, but they are unable to make important decisions about their lives, families and careers. Meanwhile, important evidence can disappear, memories can fade and witnesses can move away or die.

“I just had a client get set for 2022 for their first hearing,” said Charles Kuck, Abraham-Joseph’s immigration attorney. “We would all like to resolve this quickly. She’yaa is simply emblematic of the literally million other people in removal proceedings, most of whom would like to stay in the United States.”

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Authorities said he was arrested in a “targeted operation” aimed at fellow rapper Young Nudy, whose real name is Quantavious Thomas. DeKalb County police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were involved. Abraham-Joseph happened to be with Thomas.

Last month, Thomas pleaded guilty to a gang-related charge and possessing a firearm as a convicted felon and was sentenced to 10 years in prison with all but two years to be served on probation. Court records say he held a leadership position with the “Slaughter Gang,” or a subset of the “Bloods,” a criminal street gang.

Last summer, Thomas released the 12-track mixtape “Faded in the Booth” on streaming platforms and achieved several millions plays from viral tracks “Andy G” and “Timber.” He is nominated for a Grammy for best rap performance stemming from his appearance on “Down Bad,” with JID, Bas, J. Cole and EarthGang.

This year, Abraham-Joseph embarked on a tour to support his second album, “I Am > I Was,” released in December 2018. In October, he released a new song, “Immortal,” and last week he surprised fans with another unexpected track, “On the Inside,” from the Epix series, “Godfather of Harlem.” The rapper is nominated for Grammy Awards for best rap album for “I Am > I Was” and best rap song for “A Lot,” his hit with J. Cole.

After apprehending him in February, ICE said Abraham-Joseph 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.

Abraham-Joseph came legally to the United states on a visa when he was seven years old, has lived in the United States for nearly 20 years and lost his legal status through no fault of his own, his attorneys said. ICE said he overstayed a visa that expired in 2006.

Abraham-Joseph, who lives in Atlanta, would not comment for this article. But after ICE released him from the Irwin County Detention Center in South Georgia, the rapper spoke out against the nation’s immigration enforcement on Good Morning America, calling it “broken.”

“I have been here 20 years — 19 years. This is all I know, you know what I am saying?” he said. “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.”

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In fighting his deportation, Abraham-Joseph is seeking what is called cancellation of removal, arguing that deporting him would create a hardship for his three young U.S.-born children. If he is successful, the rapper could receive lawful permanent residence.

Nationwide, there are now 439 immigration judges. More will be sworn in on Dec. 20, said John Martin, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. Authorized for 534 judge positions now, EOIR has requested 100 more. The agency’s judges recently concluded their third consecutive fiscal year of increasing case completions, finishing 275,552 in the fiscal year ending in September, Martin added.

“EOIR is aggressively working to strengthen and improve the functioning of our immigration court system,” Martin said.

Case completion quotas mandated by the Trump administration have been “counterproductive,” said Amiena Khan, speaking as the executive vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, which is seeking independence from the Justice Department for the judges. Based in New York, Khan’s court caseload now totals about 3,500. She is scheduling some hearings out to December of 2023. The judges, she said, need more support staff and supplies.

“It is a system that is straining under the numbers,” she said. “Whether it is repairable or not — I don’t believe at this juncture it is.”

Abraham-Joseph is seeking another way to obtain legal status here. In 2017, he filed a petition for a visa reserved for crime victims who help law enforcement officials bring criminals to justice. His petition stems from an incident in 2013 — on his 21st birthday — when his lawyer says Abraham-Joseph was shot six times.

It now takes U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services nearly five years to process each one. The long waits, according to USCIS, often result from “higher application rates rather than slow processing.”

“That is why USCIS has implemented a range of process and operational reforms, hired additional staff, and expanded its facilities,” the agency said, “to ensure its ability to adjudicate keeps pace with extraordinary demand for its services over recent years.”

AJC staff writer Melissa Ruggieri contributed to this report.