Georgia Latino groups condemn “heinous” crimes at UGA, fearing anti-immigrant rhetoric

ATHENS, Ga. – After the suspect in the murder of nursing student Laken Riley was revealed to be an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, University of Georgia students and Latino organizations have called out hateful rhetoric against Hispanics and immigrants.

The Latino Community Fund Georgia said it has “observed cases of people saying they want to go 'hunting for immigrants,'” which Gilda Pedraza, executive director and founder of the group, called a “damaging narrative.” “A very real threat.”

Pedraza said she personally saw threatening social media posts that appeared to come from local residents. The comments so frightened some of her group's affiliates and Latino community leaders that they removed her contact information from their websites. “People just don’t feel safe,” she said. “We’re trying to really prevent the negative narratives.”

On a campus of nearly 41,000 students, nearly 7% of University of Georgia students identify as Hispanic.

“It is terrible that it is even possible for people to target us because of the actions of one person. If we did this to every group of people who did something wrong, we would never have peace,” Laura Figueroa, a student at the University of Georgia, told NBC News. “This shouldn’t happen in this really sad and scary situation. All I feel is sadness.”

Riley's body was found Thursday after a friend reported her missing when she failed to return from a jog on wooded trails inside the University of Georgia that morning. The 22-year-old had a UGA degree and was studying nursing at another school. University Police Chief Jeff Clark told reporters that Riley suffered “visible injuries” and died of blunt force trauma. Clark also described Riley's murder as a “crime of opportunity.”

Jose Antonio Ibarra was identified the next day as a suspect in the young woman's death. Ibarra, 26, was being held in the Clarke County Jail on multiple charges, including first-degree murder, aggravated murder, aggravated assault and concealing the death of another. Ibarra did not attend the University of Georgia and is an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela.

Since then, Republican leaders, including former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson, have pointed to Riley's killing to push tough immigration policies.

In Georgia, Insurance Commissioner John King, a Republican and Latino, called for stricter state laws in a statement on Sunday. The suspect's immigration status also prompted Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, to publicly blame the Biden administration's border and immigration policies for Riley's death, saying in a speech Monday that the system was failing on multiple levels “led to the death of a young woman.” ”

In response to an email obtained by NBC News, Kemp's press secretary Garrison Douglas said it was “not only beyond absurd, but also an insult to the intelligence of the American people, to call for the Biden administration to secure the U.S. southern border.” “The Americans support it because they are anti-immigrant.”

Republican calls for more border security have drawn responses from Latino Democrats like state Sen. Jason Esteves, who said on Twitter that “those bringing up border security should bring it up with Trump, who recently brought it up with Republicans in Washington.” has to put a bipartisan limit on hold.” Security law.

Esteves also said Laken Riley's family should be able to “grieve without being used for cheap political points.”

A call against “generalizations”

The Latino Community Fund Georgia released a statement over the weekend calling for “a comprehensive investigation that will bring justice to her family and the community in Athens” and warning that nationality, race or immigration status “should not be used to make generalizations and “Making assumptions” or accusations against large groups of people.”

“We strongly reject any comments or statements that create the impression that immigrants and/or Latinos are dangerous or a problem for our communities,” their statement said.

Pedraza said she thought “the statement would be a proactive step,” but after the group posted it, they had to close comments on the post on social media because it “received a lot of hateful comments,” she said.


Campus organizations that serve Latino students at the university released two open letters over the weekend expressing how disturbed they were to “watch this heartbreaking incident that serves as a platform for racism and xenophobia within our campuses.” community is abused”.

“While we unequivocally condemn the heinous crime committed against a fellow citizen, we are equally appalled and outraged by the unwarranted attacks and harassment the entire Latino community has subsequently been subjected to,” one of the letters said.

On Monday, students came and went to class as usual, but most still had last week's tragedy on their minds as they moved around the sprawling campus.

“We’re all just sad and horrified that we lost a classmate,” said Sophia Diaz, a junior transfer student.

“That’s kind of the focus, overcoming the tragedy,” said sophomore Lourdes Martin. “You don’t expect something so tragic to happen on your campus.”

Martin said that while some people try to “turn one bad thing into a reason to do other bad things… right now it just seems like everyone is really heartbroken.”

Hispanic fraternities at the University of Georgia will host emotional support events to help Latino students who may be feeling attacked or vulnerable during this time, creating “a safe environment for open dialogue and fostering a sense of belonging among participants,” said a university email shared with NBC News.

Barbara Machado-Requena, a student of Venezuelan descent attending the university, told Telemundo Atlanta: “I hope people don't think this man represents our community.”

Machado-Requena said she is not only “very saddened and frustrated” by the assumptions that could be made against her community, but also by the fact that an area on campus frequented by many may not be as safe as she is thought.

Curtis Bunn reported from Athens and Nicole Acevedo reported from New York City.

Dania Kalaji, Marissa Parra, Eric Ortiz, Rebecca Cohen and John Filippelli contributed.