Georgia lawmakers approve stricter immigration rules after student killing

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia lawmakers voted Thursday to tighten the state's already tough immigration laws in response to the killing of Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student whose death became entangled in the broader immigration dispute after a man crossed from Venezuela The country was illegally charged with her murder.

In the hectic final hours of the legislative session, the state House of Representatives gave final approval to a measure that would require local law enforcement to check the immigration status of people in their custody and cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The law was the result of a pledge by Republican lawmakers to crack down after Riley's body was found in a wooded area on the University of Georgia campus in Athens last month. Her death shocked the community, which is home to the state's flagship university about 70 miles from Atlanta.

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The case quickly spread beyond Georgia, and Republicans argued that her killing was an example of President Joe Biden's failure to adequately respond to the influx of migrants.

Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, a Republican, denounced “this White House’s unwillingness to secure the southern border.” Riley's death was also cited during the State of the Union as Biden responded to hecklers from Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.

“An innocent young woman killed by an illegal,” Biden said, deviating from his script — a statement that sparked a backlash from liberal Democrats and immigration advocates, particularly over his use of the term “illegal,” which they described as “ illegal” condemned in a dehumanizing and derogatory way.

Advocates for tougher immigration laws have focused on the case because the man charged in the murder, Jose Antonio Ibarra, was arrested by Border Patrol for illegally entering the United States in 2022.

He was released on parole with a temporary stay in the country, a practice the Biden administration ended last year. Officials said Ibarra was arrested by police in New York for riding a scooter without a license and with a child who was not wearing a helmet. He was arrested again, this time in Georgia in October, in connection with a shoplifting case and was released.

Attorneys representing Ibarra in the murder case have requested a jury trial. He remains held without bail.

The federal law named after Riley passed the U.S. House of Representatives this month. Thirty-seven Democrats joined Republicans in supporting the measure, which would require migrants who enter the country without authorization and are accused of theft to be held in federal custody. The bill has little chance of passing in the Senate, and critics have attacked the legislation as a cowardly exploitation of a tragedy.

In Georgia, the bill sent to the governor would require local law enforcement to attempt to check the immigration status of any undocumented person in their custody and to notify federal immigration officials if they do so arrest someone who has no legal residence. Local law enforcement agencies would also be required to regularly publish data documenting the number of cases reported to federal authorities and the responses.

“I think this is really a sensible measure,” said Rep. Houston Gaines, a Republican whose district includes Athens. “What we are talking about is people who are in the country illegally, who have committed crimes, other crimes and ensuring that those people are held accountable.”

The bill formalizes what has long been common practice among many law enforcement agencies in the state and imposes penalties for noncompliance, such as loss of state and federal funding.

“It's an expansion of existing law,” said J. Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association. “It has more teeth.”

The legislation has been criticized for being vague and placing an unfair burden on local officials who face lawsuits. The bill has also raised fears of increased racial and ethnic profiling by police.

Proponents of the measure argue that law enforcement failed to inform federal authorities and that a stricter requirement is needed. “Every sheriff is required by law to report when an alien is in their jail,” said state Rep. Jesse Petrea, the bill’s Republican sponsor. “Our concern is that not everyone has done this.”

But Norris questioned that. He said a national survey found that the 142 sheriffs who operate jails all said they already report that information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

When the session ended after midnight, lawmakers had failed to advance another measure prompted by Riley's death. This essentially involved enlisting citizens to sue local governments over policies that provide sanctuary to immigrants living in the country without legal permission.

The measure, which overhauled a bill on penalties for passing stopped school buses, was intended to strengthen longstanding state laws that prohibit Georgia communities from becoming “sanctuary cities,” which provide a safe haven for immigrants who entered the United States illegally . Local governments could lose state and federal funding if a judge found that the policies actually violated state law.

Critics have attacked the legislation as an overreaction that took advantage of the grief sparked by Riley's death. The legislation also encroaches on local governments' authority, depriving them of the ability to “define their own immigration approaches that work for each community,” said Democrat Sen. Josh McLaurin.

“I think reasonable people can have different opinions about how to make immigration policy,” he said. “But the majority really overreached with these bills because they made the penalties and requirements so severe that they essentially took away a local government’s ability to be its own independent government.”

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