Death of nursing student in Georgia triggers wave of tougher immigration laws

The killing of a Georgia nursing student by a Venezuelan migrant in February has given further impetus to anti-immigrant rhetoric this election year, and some conservatives have seized the opportunity in recent days to push for stricter border laws.

Laken Riley, 22, a nursing student at Augusta University, was killed while jogging in Athens on February 22. Jose Ibarra, 26, of Venezuela, faces multiple charges in connection with Riley's death, including premeditated murder, first-degree murder, false imprisonment, obstructing a 911 call and covering up a death.

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

Recent opinion polls show that immigration is one of the most important issues for Americans, and a third of respondents believe that migrants are more likely to engage in violence, despite evidence to the contrary.

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

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

Rep. Pedro Marin, Georgia's longest-serving Latino lawmaker, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that crimes committed by individuals should not be representative of entire communities. He said officials use fear tactics to enforce their policies.

UGA police received a call shortly after noon on February 22 from Riley's girlfriend, who reported that Riley had gone jogging that morning and had not returned. Officers who answered the call found her body about 20 minutes later in the woods near a lake.

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

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

Following Riley's death, Governor Brian Kemp wrote a letter to President Joe Biden condemning current immigration policies.

The state legislature also recently passed House Bill 1105, also known as The Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act of 2024, which allows police to arrest and detain for deportation any person suspected of being in the United States illegally.

Under the law, proven illegal immigrants would be taken to a nearby federal facility and detained there. Officials and government employees who enforce immigration measures are immune from liability. Sheriffs, law enforcement agencies or local authorities who violate the law can have federal funds withdrawn.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the sanctuary city policy has been outlawed in the state of Georgia for 15 years. During a press conference on Wednesday, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz reiterated that there is no such policy in Athens-Clarke County and implored Congress to pass the bipartisan border security deal, which some conservative politicians have called “doomed from the start.”

At the national level, the Republican Party in the House of Representatives is considering HR 7511, also known as the Laken Riley Act, which would imprison all illegal immigrants convicted of theft valued at more than $100. The committee will meet on Tuesday to consider the measure.

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

About a week after Riley's death, Biden visited the border with the intention of convincing lawmakers to pass the border bill.