After the UGA killing, Georgia lawmakers are calling for stricter immigration laws

Republican lawmakers in Georgia are pushing to tighten state laws governing the detention of undocumented immigrants after a killing on a college campus sent shockwaves through the state.

Last Thursday, the body of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old woman, was found in a wooded area on the University of Georgia campus in Athens. According to authorities, the man charged with her murder, Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, is a migrant from Venezuela who crossed the southern border in September 2022.

Officials said Mr. Ibarra and Ms. Riley did not know each other before the encounter that ended in Ms. Riley's death.

As an outpouring of grief erupted in Athens, Georgia's immigration policies have come under renewed scrutiny, with Republican lawmakers seeking to exert more state power over local law enforcement. Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz has faced criticism from conservatives for his welcoming stance toward migrants, and a bill in the state House that would toughen Georgia's existing immigration laws has gained new momentum.

After crossing the border, Mr Ibarra was detained by border police before being released into the country on a temporary residence permit. Since then, he has had a few run-ins with law enforcement. According to an official there, he was briefly arrested in New York last August for riding a scooter without a license and with a child who was not wearing a helmet. Mr. Ibarra was also arrested in Georgia in October, Athens-Clarke County police said, in connection with a shoplifting case.

Current state law requires law enforcement officials to notify immigration authorities when they arrest someone who is not a legal resident of the United States.

The new bill aims to make this notification mandatory and force law enforcement officers to comply with immigration authorities' requests to detain people. J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association, said the bill is “an expansion of existing law” but has “more punch.”

To enforce the change, the bill says, the state would withhold funding or punish officials who don't comply. On Tuesday, lawmakers moved the measure out of a committee to the House floor.

Houston Gaines, a state representative who supports the bill and whose district includes parts of Athens, said the measure was intended to “ensure that local governments fully comply with immigration laws, with harsh penalties if they do not.” “

According to Lena Graber, a senior attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, if passed, the bill would bring Georgia one step closer to becoming one of the states with the strictest immigration regulations, similar to Texas and Florida. Even in states without these laws, local officials often work voluntarily with immigration authorities, she said.

“It plays a role broadly in a fight over federalism over civil rights issues,” Ms. Graber said, “and states that really want more power to enact criminal laws like this.”

Although it is still in its early stages, Georgia's bill moving through the state House appears to have a clear path to passage, said David Schaefer, vice president of research and policy at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute.

“Language like this and training around this new language in the code can lead to an increase in compliance with ICE detainees,” he said, adding that state lawmakers have cracked down on migration many times over the years — a Pattern partly influenced by election year politics.

Under the Biden administration, record numbers of migrants have crossed the southern border, a fact that Republicans have aggressively exploited against President Biden and other Democratic lawmakers.

Many conservative politicians, including Athens native Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, said the killing was related to President Biden's immigration policies. Mike Johnson, the speaker of the House of Representatives, called on Mr Biden to close the border two days after Ms Riley's death.

However, national data suggests that there is no causal relationship between immigration and crime in the country and that increases in illegal immigration do not lead to higher local crime rates. Many studies have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States.

On Wednesday, a small group of protesters interrupted a news conference and blamed Mr. Girtz, the mayor, for Ms. Riley's murder, saying he had “blood on your hands.” Sometimes their shouts drowned out his comments.

In 2019, he passed a resolution “in support of the Athens immigrant, undocumented and Latinx community,” stating that Athens-Clarke County “is committed to working to repair the harm caused by white supremacy “.

However, the resolution made no mention of the term “sanctuary city,” which protesters claimed Athens had become on Wednesday. Mr. Girtz said the city has not taken action to create protected area status, but acknowledged that the meaning of the term can vary from place to place.

One of the protesters, Laurie Waters Camp of Athens, said she was upset that Mr. Girtz “put undocumented immigrants — his political agenda to bring them here and welcome them here — above the safety and concerns of our citizens and students have”.

Adeel Hassan and Chelsea Rose Marcius contributed reporting.