In Georgia, clashes erupt between protesters and the Athens mayor over immigration following a student murder at UGA

Protesters in Georgia disrupted a news conference Wednesday morning as Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz defended the city's policies aimed at limiting cooperation with federal authorities in immigration enforcement.

Tensions over such practices, sometimes viewed as “protective measures,” rose last week after it emerged that the suspect in the murder of nursing student Laken Riley was an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela.

Protesters called for the mayor's resignation, accusing him of being “a liar” and having “blood on your hands for this murder.” They also chanted “Invasion” and “This is America.”

Protesters hold up signs and shout heckling.  (Joshua L. Jones / USA Today Network)

Protesters hold up signs and shout heckling. (Joshua L. Jones / USA Today Network)

As Athens becomes a hotspot for immigration, Girtz warned “of a confluence of immigration and crime.”

“Responsibility for this crime lies solely with the perpetrator,” the mayor, a Democrat, said, referring to Riley’s killing.

Local governments in Georgia are required by state law to certify that they are cooperating with federal immigration authorities to receive federal funding. However, cities and counties can limit the close cooperation of their law enforcement agencies with federal immigration authorities.

Athens and Clarke County authorities have said they check detainees' criminal records and detain anyone with outstanding warrants, but do not detain illegal immigrants if they have no criminal record.

“No policies have been adopted by the Mayor's Commission that would have created sanctuary city status in Athens,” Girtz said, adding that his office submits documents to the Georgia Department of Audits every year indicating that Athens is not a “sanctuary city.” “ in the sense of the definition is state law.

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 arrested on multiple charges including premeditated 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, some Republican leaders have pointed to Riley's killing to push tough immigration policies, while some Democrats said linking Riley's death to immigration and border security was a “cheap” political tactic.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice, “recent research suggests that individuals who immigrate (legally or illegally) are no more likely to commit crimes in the United States, and may even be less likely.”

Latino students and other Hispanic groups in the state have sent letters condemning the killing and also spoken out against hateful rhetoric against Hispanics and immigrants. Some community organizers have removed their personal information from websites after posting posts about “hunting for immigrants.”

“Latinos and immigrants in general are valuable to Georgia,” Gilda Pedraza, executive director and founder of the Latino Community Fund Georgia, told NBC News on Monday.

Over the weekend, her organization released a statement outlining some of the contributions of immigrants in Georgia — including paying billions in taxes and making up a large portion of the state's workforce.

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