Nursing student's death leads Georgia House to move forward on immigration bill

Republicans in the Georgia House of Representatives are pushing to require every eligible police and sheriff's department to help identify, arrest and hold undocumented immigrants for deportation.

The proposal passed the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security on February 27 and was sent to the full House of Representatives for further debate after police accused a Venezuelan man of committing a crime on the University of Georgia campus of beating a nursing student to death.

Jose Ibarra was arrested Feb. 23 on murder and assault charges in connection with the Feb. 22 death of 22-year-old Laken Riley. Mr. Ibarra is a Venezuelan citizen who entered the United States illegally in 2022, according to immigration authorities. It is unclear whether he has applied for asylum.

Ms. Riley studied nursing at Augusta University's Athens campus after beginning her college career at the University of Georgia's Athens campus. She was found dead on February 22 after a roommate reported that she had not returned from a morning run in a wooded area.

Also on February 22, the University of Georgia announced it would spend $7.3 million to improve campus security, and Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives demanded information about Mr. Ibarra from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The bill would move Georgia closer to states with stricter immigration laws like Texas, which starting in March will allow police to arrest migrants entering the state illegally and give local judges the power to expel them from the country

Georgia itself had already passed a strict anti-immigration law in 2011, but later withdrew parts of it. That measure allowed officials to block anyone deemed “suspicious” from checking documents, required governments and large companies to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new employees, required applicants for public benefits, required proof of citizenship and set up a panel to punish local governments that didn't crack down.

The bill, which Georgia's committee passed on Feb. 27, would also establish new requirements for how prison officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should check whether people are known to be in the country illegally.

“This issue is certainly the most important issue in my community right now as we have faced an unspeakable tragedy in Athens over the past few days,” said Republican Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center counted six of 159 Georgia counties with 287(g) agreements with ICE in July. Five of them are just in prison. Oconee County, a suburb of Athens, issues arrest warrants for immigration violations and deportation orders. State agencies also cooperate with ICE.

According to the center, at least three counties in Georgia have stopped cooperating with ICE at the jail, including two large suburban Atlanta counties where it was a major election issue — Gwinnett County and Cobb County.

Isabel Otero, policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Georgia, said the bill's supporters are “determined to force localities to enforce immigration laws” even if police and sheriff's departments lack the capacity to do so.

“Unfortunately, people have exploited the death of a young woman for political gain in a way that is really disheartening,” Ms. Otero said.

Republican state Rep. Jesse Petrea of ​​Savannah said the bill is necessary to enforce existing laws that require sheriffs to check with ICE on people who do not appear to be American citizens.

“Maybe half of our sheriffs follow this law,” said State Representative Petrea. “That’s unfortunate, and that’s what we’re trying to address here.”

Sheriffs deny they are breaking the law, said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association. He said even Athens-Clarke County, which Republicans call a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants, is complying.

State Representative Petrea's bill would make sheriffs who fail to check immigration status guilty of the crime of violating their oath of office. The bill would also deny state funding to prisons and sheriffs that don't cooperate.

The law stipulates that detainees cannot be held in an immigration detention center for more than 48 hours without a warrant signed by a federal judge. However, in later states, sheriffs and jailers must comply with all requests from ICE detainees.

State Representative Gaines is pushing a second bill, House Bill 1359, that would allow people to seek property tax refunds if cities or counties refuse to communicate with immigration authorities. The refunds would also apply if a local government refuses to enforce vagrancy laws against homeless people.

The University of Georgia said it will increase its police budget by 20% to hire more officers and increase salaries. The university said the additional security personnel will patrol areas where students gather at night, including 24-hour guarding in libraries. It also said a subsidized ride-hailing system would operate from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., instead of the current four hours a night.

The university said it will install a system of combined surveillance cameras and blue light emergency call boxes. The university had previously removed emergency call boxes on the grounds that they were rarely used by cell phone-carrying students. More lights at zebra crossings, license plate readers and more fences are also planned.

The university said the package will cost $7.3 million, including $5.5 million in one-time investments and $1.8 million in ongoing expenses.

In Washington, Republican chairmen of several House committees sent separate letters to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas demanding information about how ICE handled Mr. Ibarra's case.

Authorities have not said exactly how Ms. Riley was killed, only that her death was caused by blunt force trauma.

District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, who oversees prosecutions in Athens-Clarke County, said on Feb. 26 that she was appointing a special prosecutor to prosecute Mr. Ibarra. District Attorney Gonzalez, who is up for re-election this year, has been criticized for being ineffective, having lost several cases and had several deputy district attorneys leave office.

Georgia lawmakers face a key deadline on Feb. 29, the last day for legislation to pass either the House or Senate and move to the other legislative chamber for consideration this year. Lawmakers will decide March 4 on issues including whether to tighten rules for law enforcement cooperation with immigration officials and establish government protections for religious freedoms.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.