Death of Georgia nursing student sparks wave of tougher immigration laws – estimate

The February killing of a Georgia nursing student by a Venezuelan immigrant has added fuel to anti-immigrant rhetoric this election year, and some conservatives have seized the opportunity in recent days to introduce tougher border laws.

Laken Riley, 22, a nursing student at Augusta University, was killed Feb. 22 while jogging in Athens. Jose Ibarra, 26, of Venezuela, is charged with multiple state charges in Riley's death, including premeditated murder, aggravated murder, false imprisonment, obstructing an emergency call and concealing a death.

Riley's death drew national attention and reignited anti-immigrant sentiments already fueled by former President Donald Trump's campaign this year. Ibarra is believed to have entered the United States illegally in 2022.

Recent polls show immigration is a top issue for Americans, and a third believe migrants are more vulnerable to violence, despite evidence to the contrary.

The Hispanic Student Association at the University of Georgia (UGA) released a statement on Instagram last week in response to a flood of hate comments directed at the group and members of the Latino community.

“In light of recent events, we are confronted with the painful reality of hatred and bigotry that has no place in our campus community,” the statement said. “Such grief should not be misused for racism, hatred and xenophobia.”

Rep. Pedro Marin, Georgia's longest-serving Latino lawmaker, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that crimes committed by individuals should not affect entire communities. He said officials are using fear tactics to push policy.

UGA Police received a call from Riley's boyfriend just after noon on Feb. 22, reporting that Riley had gone for a run that morning and had not returned. Officers found her body about 20 minutes later in the woods near a lake.

Last week, her sorority Alpha Chi Omega held a memorial vigil. “We have lost one of the brightest lights ever,” the group said in an Instagram post.

Ibarra is being held in the Clarke County Jail. His immigration status is under scrutiny as the investigation into the student's death continues. Some officials are calling for stricter regulations on the southern border.

Gov. Brian Kemp sent a letter to President Joe Biden condemning current immigration policies following Riley's death.

The state legislature also recently passed House Bill 1105, also known as the Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act of 2024, which would allow police to track anyone suspected of being in the U.S. illegally , arrested and detained for deportation.

Under the bill, verified undocumented immigrants would be transported to a nearby federal facility for detention. Officials and government employees enforcing immigration enforcement are not subject to liability. Any sheriff, law enforcement agency or local government agency that violates the code may be denied federal funding.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Georgia law has banned sanctuary city policies statewide for the past 15 years. During a news conference Wednesday, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz reiterated that Athens-Clarke County does not have such policies and implored Congress to pass the bipartisan border security agreement, which some conservative politicians called “dead on arrival.”

At the national level, the House Republican Party is considering HR 7511 – also called the Laken Riley Act – which would require the detention of all undocumented immigrants convicted of theft of more than $100. The committee will meet Tuesday to discuss the measure.

Republicans said the law was created to mourn Riley and “other victims of the Biden administration's open borders policies,” according to the bill's text. The House of Representatives called on the Biden administration to publicly denounce its border policies and increase enforcement and deportations.

Biden visited the border about a week after Riley's death, aiming to persuade lawmakers to pass the border law.