As Congress questions the federal immigration agency’s judgment in these post-September 11 days, so do the family and famous friends of a legendary New York rap artist.
Hip-hop pioneer Slick Rick, 37, was arrested and locked in a South Florida prison by the INS on June 1, when the Caribbean cruise ship he had performed on pulled into a Miami port.
“We got a knock on the cabin door, and it was the INS officers,” the rapper, formally known as Ricky Walters, told the Voice last Thursday in his first interview from detention. A British native who came to the U.S. legally at age 11 but never bothered to obtain citizenship, he is charged, according to an INS document, with having “self-deported” and illegally re-entered the U.S. by working the cruise. The agency is seeking to deport him and refuses to release him on bond while legal action unfolds, which could take months.
Walters, in his trademark mellow voice, expressed quiet disbelief at the prospect of having to leave the Bronx home he owns for England, even though his wife and two children are citizens. “I didn’t think it was going to get this big,” he murmured. While his parents and other relatives became naturalized, Walters was more lax, somewhat distracted by such career explosions as his 1988 platinum LP The Great Adventures of Slick Rick, a genre-defining classic.
“I didn’t realize the significance [of citizenship] until it was too late,” he said.
Too late was 1991, when he was convicted of second-degree attempted murder for shooting his cousin and a bystander during an argument. He served just over five years in an upstate prison and collected glowing assessments of his conduct, which his lawyer forwarded to the INS and the Voice. (Celebrities like Will Smith have written letters of support, along with New York electeds, community organizations, and Walters’ parole officer. His longtime professional and personal backer, Def Jam owner Russell Simmons, of late an electoral player, told the Voice he was lobbying members of Congress and marshaling industry leaders to fight what he called a “very, very unfortunate” misuse of government resources.)
Walters fended off one INS attempt to deport him in 1995. But in 1996 Congress passed a law allowing the INS to detain or deport noncitizen felons, even after they had served out their sentences. Some are held for months or years. Walters said he was just beginning to learn of these other, lesser-known detainees.
“It seems like there needs to be some kind of humane monitoring system,” he said, echoing long-standing arguments of the ACLU and immigration advocates. “Decent people are getting caught in the mix, and this is like a second punishment. I understand that they have to tighten up after September 11, but not everybody is Osama bin Laden.”
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