21 Savage and the 50,000 ICE Detainees

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21 Savage in Santa Monica, California

Rapper 21 Savage could not be counted among the throng of artists and celebrities looking on from the audience at Sunday’s Grammy awards in Los Angeles. Nor was he watching from home. Instead, the Atlanta-based artist, real name She’yaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, spent the day locked up in an immigrant detention center in Georgia. His eighth day, to be exact.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took 21 Savage into custody on February 3 and subsequently placed him into deportation proceedings. The federal agency alleges that Abraham-Joseph, a citizen of the United Kingdom, is guilty of overstaying his visa and has a felony drug conviction on his record. The musician’s legal representatives contested that account, arguing that Abraham-Joseph has no prior criminal convictions and that his overstay was through no fault of his own. 

Inside a closed hearing on Tuesday in Atlanta, Immigration Judge J. Dan Pelletier decided to release 21 Savage, whom his lawyers confirmed as a British national, on a $100,000 bond to ensure his return to court for future hearings. He was released on Wednesday after more than a week in detention. Ultimately, the agency dropped the aggravated felony charge and is now purshing to deport the musician solely on his visa overstay. 

According to Charles Kuck, one of 21 Savage’s legal representatives, ICE fought during the hearing to keep the rapper detained without bond, despite his clean record. 

“Justice prevailed,” Kuck tells The American Prospect. “But there are thousands of other people in immigration custody today that didn’t have the benefit of a bond hearing like my client.”

It might seem strange to suggest that 21 Savage was in any way fortunate given his untimely detention, but it’s true. The immigration legal system in the United States is an ever-shifting labyrinth that traps hundred of thousands of people in any given year. For the almost 50,000 immigrants currently stuck in ICE custody, the walls in that labyrinth form a steel cell and their detention stories don’t often play out nearly as well as Abraham-Joseph’s. 

The time it takes for a bond hearing to be scheduled varies from court to court. Kuck says he and his team were informed Sunday night, one week after 21 Savage’s arrest, that the rapper would have a bond hearing Tuesday morning. 

“This bond hearing was spectacularly fast for our district,” says Kuck, whose offices are located in Atlanta. “Some people can wait as long as two months, just for a hearing.”

ICE alleged that 21 Savage was guilty of a felony drug conviction in 2014 in Fulton County, Georgia. According to reporting by the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the District Attorney’s Office in Fulton said it was unable to confirm whether or not he was convicted because of the state’s first offender law, which allows some defendants to have their criminal records sealed or expunged. His attorney says the conviction was vacated and his record was then sealed, barring the case from having any impact on the immigration judge's decision.

Yet if 21 Savage had in fact had a drug conviction on his record, he would have been completely barred from the bond awarded to him yesterday. 

When making a bond decision, an immigration judge must determine whether the detainee is a danger to the community as well as the likelihood that they will actually return to court if freed. In contrast to criminal law, which allows judges to consider the good aspects of a detainee’s history along with the bad when making a custody decision, immigrants who have committed certain crimes are not entitled to bond under any circumstances. The list of crimes, which Congress has expanded over the course of the last two decades, includes minor drug offenses and nonviolent misdemeanors such as missing a court appearance, theft, and submitting a fraudulent tax return. 

“What would normally get you a bond in a state court will not necessarily get you a bond in immigration court,” says Virginia attorney Alfred Robertson, who practices both criminal and immigration law. “It’s hard to explain to a client that they don’t qualify for bond because of a weed conviction, but the guy with domestic assault and a DUI on his record does.”

21 Savage’s clean record certainly helped secure his bond, but did not free him from his deportation case, which is still pending. Federal prosecutors are now pushing for his deportation on charges of a visa overstay, according to Kuck, who says the musician came to the U.S. with his mother as a child and remained after his legal status expired. Under U.S. immigration law, a criminal conviction isn’t required for a noncitizen to be considered deportable—simply being illegally present in the U.S. is enough for ICE to knock on your door.

While the Obama administration tried to reel in ICE from targeting people with no criminal background, Trump has emboldened the federal agency to do just that. 

An analysis of the 44,000 immigrants in ICE custody during June 2018 found that nearly 60 percent had no criminal record whatsoever. A full 80 percent of detainees either had no prior convictions or had only committed a minor offense such as a traffic violation, according to the report conducted by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).

Unlike many of those detainees, 21 Savage had no shortage of competent representation in the courtroom on Tuesday: In addition to Kuck, Abraham-Joseph’s own attorney Dina LaPolt and Alex Spiro, who represents rapper and businessman Jay-Z, were on the case. 

Noncitizens in immigration proceedings are allowed to hire legal help, but they are not entitled to government-funded counsel if they can’t afford it. Efforts to provide free or low-cost legal representation for immigrants have ramped up under the Trump administration. Still, more than 60 percent of detainees in immigration court were unrepresented in 2017, according to TRAC statistics. 

study of more than 1.2 million deportation cases decided between 2007 and 2012 found that detainees were 10.5 times more likely to win their case when represented. Nearly half of represented immigrants were awarded bond, while more than 90 percent of detainees representing themselves remained behind bars. The authors of the study, published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review in 2015, admit that analyzing custody hearing outcomes can be tricky because “successful release on bond also correlates with the immigrant’s financial status and family support.” 

In other words, being awarded bond doesn’t mean much if you can’t afford to pay it. And while 21 Savage’s eye-popping $100,000 bond is stratospheric for a custody hearing, high bond prices are fast becoming the new normal for detained immigrants. 

The median bond in 11 of the nation’s 39 immigration courts is $10,000 or more, according to a TRAC analysis of the first eight months of FY 2018. Nationally, the median bond amount is $7,500, up by 50 percent from the median of $5,000 in 2013. 

Under Trump, ICE prosecutors have gotten in the habit of pushing for detention in nearly every case and requesting increasingly outlandish bond amounts for those that get away. The result has been bond totals going up across the board. Unlike in courts dealing with criminal law, immigration judges don’t have a bond schedule or formal bond pricing guidelines to go by beyond a legal minimum of $1,500.

“It’s easier to give someone a $5,000 bond if [the Department of Homeland Security] is asking for a $10,000 bond. It’s a lot harder when DHS is asking for a $50,000 bond,” says Dana Marks, former president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a judge for more than 30 years. 

ICE’s use of high bonds to force detention is no accident; its push to detain 21 Savage without bond, despite his clean record, is not an isolated incident of wanton cruelty. The agency uses long-term detention as a litigation strategy, a means of winning otherwise unwinnable cases by keeping immigrants in often-appalling living conditions until they crack, ultimately opting for deportation rather than remaining in jail any longer. 

“ICE clearly uses detention against individuals to try to force them to give up their cases,” says Kuck. “Detention should not be the norm for people that have not committed a crime.” 

While Kuck says that his client was happy with his treatment at Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center, reports of abuse and negligence at ICE facilities abound. More likely is that any gentle treatment the musician received stemmed from his case’s high-profile.  

This week, more than a dozen musicians, actors, and activists released a video in solidarity with 21 Savage, highlighting various innocuous activities that have led to undocumented people being picked up by ICE. 

21 Savage’s deportation case is pending and may take years to resolve, according to Kuck. In the meantime, the rapper, who is happy to be free, will apply for a federal work permit. 

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