House Republicans pass bill to detain migrants accused of theft after student killed in Georgia

FILE PHOTO: Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Mike Johnson (R-LA) holds a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 14, 2024. File photo by Leah Millis/Reuters

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House of Representatives passed a bill Thursday that would require federal authorities to detain illegal immigrants accused of theft, as Republicans used the recent death of a nursing student in Georgia to attack President Joe Biden's border policies a few hours ago before his State of the Union address.

REGARD: The murder of a Georgia student sparks a heated debate over immigration policy

After 22-year-old Laken Riley, a nursing student at Augusta University, was killed during a morning run late last month, Republicans fast-tracked the Laken Riley Act in the House of Representatives, coinciding with Biden's annual address.

The bill passed easily by a vote of 251-170, with all Republicans and 37 Democrats voting in favor. But the nine-page bill was intended more to make a political point than to enact legislation and had little chance of passing in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

As immigration becomes a top issue in the presidential election, Republicans are using nearly every tool at their disposal — including the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — to condemn the president's handling of immigration. But Biden also criticized Republican lawmakers for rejecting a bipartisan bill last month that aimed to curb the number of illegal border crossings at the U.S. border with Mexico.

“Republicans will not support releasing dangerous criminals into our communities, and that’s exactly what the Biden administration has done,” Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson told Fox News.

Riley's death has become a rallying point for Donald Trump, the likely Republican presidential nominee, after authorities arrested Jose Ibarra on murder and assault charges. The Venezuelan had entered the US illegally and was allowed to stay to pursue his immigration case. He has not yet pleaded guilty to the charges.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Ibarra was arrested by New York police in August and charged with injuring a child under 17 and driving violation. Ibarra was released before immigration authorities could ask New York authorities to hold him until immigration authorities could take him into custody, ICE said. New York authorities have said they have no record of the arrest.

The bill would also allow states to sue the federal government for crimes committed by immigrants who enter the country illegally. It was part of a broader push by Republicans to mock immigrants who enter the U.S. illegally and link them to violent crime.

“Laken is just one of the tragic examples of innocent American citizens who have lost their lives and been brutally and violently attacked by illegal criminals roaming our streets,” Johnson said.

The speaker said his State of the Union guests would include New York police officers who argued with migrants in Times Square.

REGARD: The potential impact of Trump's extreme deportation and immigration agenda

Overall, however, there is no evidence that immigrants are more vulnerable to violent crime. Several studies have found that immigrants commit lower crime rates than those born in the United States, although groups that advocate for restrictive immigration policies dispute or reject these findings.

A study published by the National Academy of Sciences based on Texas Department of Public Safety data from 2012 to 2018 found that native-born U.S. citizens were more than twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes as people who were were staying in the country illegally.

Democrats argued that Republicans showed they were not serious about enacting border policy changes by rejecting a bipartisan Senate proposal that would have overhauled the U.S. asylum system with faster and stricter enforcement. Republicans largely criticized this bill as inadequate.

Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, accused Republican lawmakers of using Riley's death for political gain.

“The idea that you would bring a bill like this to the table to take advantage of a terrible tragedy, a bill that is not going to do anything, a bill that you know is going to go nowhere, is really, really sad,” McGovern said.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) holds a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, USA, on February 14, 2024. File photo by Leah Millis/Reuters