In Florence, just an hour away from downtown Phoenix, sits one of the largest immigrant detention facilities in Arizona. At this facility and others around the state, Immigration Customs and Enforcement officers placed detainees, including hunger strikers, the disabled, and those identifying as LGBTQ, into punitive solitary confinement 715 times from 2012 to 2017. At least 38 of those people were held for more than 100 days — the United Nations has said that subjecting an individual to solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture.
This is just one of the abusive behaviors documented in facilities overseen by ICE and frequently run by private contractors. The state of Arizona alone detained 3,869 immigrants last year according to the nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants. Nationwide, detention centers are being exposed for housing these people in extremely harmful living conditions. ICE detainees are being held in these overcrowded facilities for weeks on end. Children, who legally cannot be held for more than 72 hours, were discovered to have been living in a Border Patrol facility in Clint, Texas, for almost a month. The New Yorker reported that many of them were filthy, and complained to visiting attorneys that they were hungry.
These facilities are also attracting disease and sickness. In March of this year, ICE quarantined over 2,200 people after an outbreak of mumps in two facilities. In 2016, a spate of measles at the Eloy Detention Center near Tucson spread after unvaccinated employees carried it into the community. Other stories of illness, and ICE’s negligent responses, have also been documented. According to the New Yorker report from Clay, detainees were made to sleep on the concrete floor as punishment for losing combs distributed to treat an outbreak of lice. Another case involved a teen mother who was placed in a quarantine room because her infant child had contracted influenza. When she inevitably caught the flu as well, guards took the baby out of the room, left her inside, and gave the child to another young teenager to care for.
Without a doubt, the state of the immigration system in America is dire, so much so that the conditions in ICE facilities have earned not-inaccurate comparisons to Nazi concentration camps. If you don’t believe it, you could ask the immigrants in Florence, or in Clay. You could ask Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who visited Clint herself.
Or, you could ask 21 Savage.
In February, the music industry was blindsided when the 26-year-old rapper, born Shé’yaa Bin Abraham Joseph, was taken into custody by ICE for being in the U.S. illegally. Although he claims Atlanta as his home, it was revealed that the rapper was born in Plainstow, England, a suburb of London. Joseph, who has spent time in jail, said nothing prepared him for what immigration detention was going to be like.
“The worst thing was sitting in there not knowing what was going to happen, or when it’s going to happen,” he told Billboard . “Whenever I went to jail before, it was, ‘You’re being charged with this and going to court on this date.’ But immigration ain’t like that. You’re just being held.”
Joseph’s immigration journey is unique. He came to the U.S. legally with his mother and siblings when he was 7. In 2005, after a short visit to the U.K. for a funeral, he came home on an H4 visa, given to the dependents of current visa holders, which expired the following year. Joseph wasn’t even 14 years old when he was stripped of his legal residency status. Having come to the U.S. as a child, he didn’t understand the implications.
“I didn’t even know what a visa was,” the rapper told Good Morning America . “I was 7 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.”
Like many immigrants Joseph figured out how to survive without his visa temporarily. By 2015, he was fully focused on music. His debut project, The Slaughter Tape, was getting high marks in the rap underground and caught the attention of Atlanta producer Metro Boomin. The two released their first collaborative EP in 2016, Savage Mode, which charted at No. 23 on the Billboard 200. Taking advantage of this momentum, 21 released his debut studio LP, Issa Album, in July 2017. By September of that year, he was featured on the popular single “Rockstar,” from Post Malone’s album Beerbongs and Bentleys.
Now that he’s secured his success in mainstream hip-hop, 21 Savage has turned his attention back to the streets of Atlanta with a new agenda, quietly giving back to his community. The father of three teamed up with several nonprofit organizations to start the 21 Savage Bank Account Campaign, a program aimed at teaching teenagers financial literacy. He’s hosted an annual school supply donation campaign for three years called Issa Back To School Drive. He’s advocated for women’s rights and immigrants publicly.
His latest album, i am > i was, released late last year, showcases this growth. Although his sound is generally unchanged, 21 Savage’s artistic evolution is apparent on the new record. He delivers a heartfelt ode to the woman that raised him on “letter to my mama,” and gets introspective on “a lot,” admitting his wealth and possessions are as numerous as his regrets.
When Joseph performed “a lot” live on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he added a lyric critical of the Trump administration: “Been through some things so I can’t imagine my kids stuck at the border.” It was this improvisation that he and his legal team believe inspired his sudden arrest, though he’s made an effort to achieve legal status: In 2017, he filed a U visa application and is currently awaiting an immigration hearing that, as of publication, has been postponed indefinitely.
However strange or unthinkable it was before his arrest, 21 Savage’s experience with nightmare of American immigration shed new light on the abuses inflicted on millions of people wasting away in ICE detainment. Until action is taken to change this horrific system, innocent people will continue to suffer. One of them could be your favorite rapper.
Douglas Markowitz contributed reporting.