Georgia lawmakers are moving forward with immigration legislation in response to the death of a UGA student

The murder of 22-year-old Laken Riley on the University of Georgia campus last week shocked and horrified people far beyond Athens. On Monday, the suspects' immigration status reignited debate over immigration policy in Georgia's parliament and appears to have increased the chances that immigration-related legislation will be enacted into state law.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 26-year-old Venezuelan Jose Ibarra entered the country illegally in 2022 and was previously arrested in New York and reportedly charged with injury to a child. Athens-Clarke County Police Department documents show Ibarra was also charged with shoplifting in Athens in October and had a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear in court.

Ibarra remains in police custody after being denied bail over the weekend.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who announced earlier this month that the Georgia National Guard would deploy additional troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, continued to blame federal immigration policy and President Joe Biden for Riley's death.

“Look, the president could come out today and change policy,” Kemp said during a Monday appearance on Fox News. “He could simply use the bully pulpit of the White House to signal: 'Local law enforcement, please, if you have these people who are here illegally, who are not citizens, who are committing a crime in our country, please notify us. ' ICE.' It’s that simple. ICE can work with local and state governments to deal with these people and hopefully prevent situations like we saw in Laken.”

Leading Democrats accused the GOP majority of playing politics at a time of tragedy.

“The majority saw her death as an opportunity to promote and defend Donald Trump,” said Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler. “Georgia’s Republicans rushed to blame President Biden for this murderous presence in Athens.”

Butler criticized Republicans in Congress for backing away from a border law with concessions on border security, arguing that passing the bill would give Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, an opportunity to campaign on the issue leave the table.

“Our border crisis continues because Donald Trump has convinced one party that the only thing that matters is putting Donald Trump first, no matter the cost.”

Democratic US Senator Jon Ossoff also tried to blame Trump for what he described as an immigration crisis.

“The situation at the southern border is a real crisis,” Ossoff said after visiting the House and Senate on Monday and leading a moment of silence for Riley. “And as I have said time and time again over the years, for too long too many Democrats have been unwilling to acknowledge that we need laws and their implementation. And that’s why the former president’s decision to intentionally eliminate the bipartisan border security legislation that was being negotiated in the Senate was, in my view, so destructive to our national security.”

In a heated speech, Cummings told Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal that Biden had been too soft on immigration.

“During the debate we were lectured and the left-wing position was taken that no human being is illegal,” he said. “Was Laken’s murderer illegal? We talk about how we need more laws. We need more of it. We need more of it. No, we don't do that. We have to enforce the laws that are on the books.”

Proposed Laws

At least three House Republicans believe Georgia needs more legislation.

HB 1359 by Athens Republican Rep. Houston Gaines passed out of a committee on Monday. If it becomes law, homeowners could receive a refund on their property taxes if their local government fails to enforce the laws, including by adopting a sanctuary policy.

“We've just seen here in the last five days the devastating consequences when local governments and the federal government don't do their job and don't enforce laws,” Gaines said. “The federal government has obviously completely failed when it comes to our southern border, we have seen that repeatedly, but in my city where I live in Athens and in Athens-Clarke County our local government has also failed, and frankly there is “There are things that could and should have been done over many years, which unfortunately led to this absolute tragedy in our community last week.”

His law and all other bills must be passed by a chamber by Thursday if the path to passage is to be clear this year.

House Bill 1105 by House Bill 1105 would make it a felony for prison guards to fail to keep track of the information of inmates who are not U.S. citizens, including their immigration status and country of origin.

If someone goes to jail and is found to be undocumented, officials must send information to ICE. If immigration authorities want the person, they can send a detainer or a warrant, said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association

“The warrant has greater significance than an inmate,” Norris said. “A lot of times, though, when someone gets arrested and goes through this process, ICE or the law enforcement support group, they don't give you anything back because they don't know these people. I mean, they haven’t met this person yet, so they don’t know they’re even in the country.”

“If they don't have a federal arrest warrant or hold, they will actually be released after 24 hours if they post bail,” he said.

Petrea said some sheriffs don't report that data to ICE.

“Unfortunately, there are sheriffs across the state who are not doing this, some certainly intentionally not,” the Savannah Republican said.

Petrea said he has been dealing with such issues for years, but this one may attract more attention because of the shocking nature of the current case.

“Unfortunately, while people are more knowledgeable when a terrible tragedy occurs, it is not the only one,” Petrea said.

House Bill 1102 from Dallas Republican Martin Momtahan would require the Department of Public Safety to compile a regular list of inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences and who are in the country illegally. Every 30 days, the department sent the list to the attorney general's office, which could file a request to transfer the detainee to a “sanctuary state,” defined as a state that prohibits law enforcement from communicating with federal authorities about immigration status.

Norris said he supports the idea behind the sheriff's laws but would prefer some changes.

“We are not in favor of reporting to the Department of Audit, but we are in favor of expanding our prison report to ask some questions about illegals arrested, how many were arrested, for example, how many reports were made to ICE, how many detainees returned and how a lot of arrest warrants came back,” he said.

Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.