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Has ICE Overstepped Its Authority by 'Demonizing' 21 Savage?

The agency reportedly targeted not just the artist's immigration status but his persona, in the latest example of what advocates identify as ICE abusing its authority.
Atlanta rapper 21 Savage attends the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund 15th Anniversary Event on November 5th, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York.

Atlanta rapper 21 Savage attends the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund 15th Anniversary Event on November 5th, 2018 in Brooklyn, New York. ICE Agents arrested 21 Savage on Sunday for allegedly being in the country illegally.

Immigrant rights advocates are blasting Immigration and Customs Enforcement not only for detaining rapper 21 Savage, who was arrested by ICE officials Sunday morning, but for reportedly maligning his character to the press, in what is being heralded as the latest way that the agency is overstepping the scope of its remit.

ICE agents arrested the artist, whose given name is Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, on allegations that he was born in London and had long overstayed a visa that expired in 2006. If true, the allegations would make 21 Savage the most high-profile American resident to be targeted by the Trump administration's mass deportations. The news was heralded as a surreal turn of events by fans of 21 Savage's work, many of whom thought him to be an Atlanta native.

Neither ICE, nor 21 Savage's legal and press team immediately responded to Pacific Standard's requests for comment.

As the story of the arrest broke, Atlanta-based CNN correspondent Nick Valencia tweeted that an ICE spokesman had told him that 21 Savage's "whole public persona is false. He actually came to the U.S. from the U.K. as a teen and overstayed his visa."

TMZ was one of several celebrity news outlets to seize on the ICE spokesman's reported words, quipping that the artist "is a living, breathing example of that ol' saying, 'fake it til you make it.'"

But immigration rights advocates were not amused by ICE fueling gossip coverage of the star, particularly in comments that appeared to venture beyond his immigration status and wade into matters of character.

"ICE's character assassination of 21 is aimed at creating an 'us versus them' mentality rooted in nationalism," says Jose Servin, a spokesman for California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, an organization that advocates against U.S. immigration enforcement's apparent demonization of immigrants. "21 is not a fraud because of where he was born. ICE is clearly sending a chilling message to anyone who chooses to speak out against injustices in the U.S., as 21 has done on his latest album."

ICE's decision to publicize details about those they arrest is not unique to 21 Savage. Soon after Donald Trump's inauguration in January of 2017, he announced the creation of the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, an agency under ICE designed to publicize crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. The agency has repeatedly come under fire for reportedly releasing private information, sometime false, of alleged crime victims with the apparent intention of stoking fears about immigrants. Trump-aligned news outlets like Fox News have consistently reported individual incidents where undocumented immigrants are alleged to have perpetuated crimes, in an apparent show of support for the White House's claims that immigrants are a source of crime in the United States—claims repeatedly disproven by statistics on the matter.

Some advocates note that ICE is not a rogue agency but rather appears to be following cues from a president who has continually denigrated immigrants as criminals and referred to some as being from "shithole" nations.

"By publicly maligning 21 Savage's character, ICE is following the lead of a president that has continuously peddled racist lies and misinformation to further a cruel anti-immigrant agenda," says Anu Joshi, senior director of immigrant rights policy at the New York Immigration Coalition. "We must demand more from our public officials."

Other advocates note that ICE is not tasked with being an arbiter of moral authority but rather enforcing U.S. immigration law. By weighing in on the sort of person 21 Savage may be, they argue, the agency has far overstepped its jurisdiction. "The president has no checks, and ICE is using no discretion, and all politics, on deciding who to remove," says Kevin Solis, spokesman for immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles.

"I can see that it is important for ICE to demonize who they terrorize," Solis adds. "Otherwise [ICE] become the antagonists in this 'morality play' of good versus evil, us versus them. Stating that his 'whole public persona is false' uses big words and is overly dramatic, but again, its public theater."