Following the killing of Laken Riley, a bill in Georgia is stoking fears of an immigration crackdown

Republican lawmakers in Georgia are advancing a bill that would require local and state police to identify, arrest and detain undocumented immigrants – tasks normally reserved for federal immigration authorities.

The proposal gained momentum after a Venezuelan migrant was arrested in the killing of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student in Athens, Georgia. Immigrant rights advocates in the state say the bill demonizes immigrants, pointing to research showing that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than others.

But Republican Rep. Jesse Petrea, who supports the bill, said it will improve public safety.

“We have the largest border crisis in our country’s history,” he said. “In Georgia, the people of this state, the people we represent, expect us to do something. And I think this is a good way to do just that.”

The proposal is similar to Senate Bill 4, the Texas measure that authorizes state and local police forces to arrest people who cross the southern border illegally and allows local judges to expel migrants from the country. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently put the Texas law on hold as a lawsuit from the Biden administration and immigrant advocacy groups takes shape.

The Georgia bill would require law enforcement to verify immigration status during encounters and work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain those arrested. Prisons would also be required to check with immigration officials whether the people they are detaining are in the country illegally.

Opponents argue that the bill will lead to racial profiling.

“This bill will force people to live in fear and burden local governments and law enforcement officials by expanding their responsibilities without a dime of federal funding,” said Democratic State Representative Pedro Marin, the Legislature’s longest-serving Latino elected official.

Georgia sheriffs say they are already complying with federal requests for citizenship information and have expressed concerns that the proposal would overwhelm their departments.

“This is not about making Georgians safer,” said Jerry Gonzalez, the CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “It's about taking advantage of an opportunistic situation to target an extensive immigrant and Latino community, and that's really divisive and it's a dangerous policy that they're pursuing.”

Immigrant rights advocates in Georgia say the bill is motivated by the upcoming presidential election, and several advocacy groups have held events to condemn the legislation.

Ben Williams, president of the Cobb County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, compared the bill to Jim Crow policies.

“Beating immigrants now and previously beating the descendants of slaves is a tried and true approach to dividing people,” he said.

But Republicans in Georgia insist they are tackling immigration in a meaningful way.

“Setting policy in the face of an unspeakable tragedy is not policy,” said Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines, whose district includes Athens, where Laken Riley was killed. “The right thing to do is to make sure something like this never happens again.”

The bill passed the Georgia House of Representatives but still needs to be approved by the state Senate before it can be sent to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp's desk.

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