The arrest of a migrant in Georgia makes the city the latest immigration battleground

When a 22-year-old nursing student was found dead on a forest trail at the University of Georgia, in what is believed to be the first murder on campus in nearly 30 years, it sent waves of grief and fear that shook the university to its core.

But when a 26-year-old migrant from Venezuela was charged Friday with the kidnapping and murder of college student Laken Riley, something else happened: It changed Athens and Clarke County, a community of about 130,000 people about 70 miles east of Atlanta. the latest flash point in the political dispute over American immigration policy.

In a social media post on Monday, former President Donald J. Trump called suspect Jose Antonio Ibarra a “monster” and blamed President Biden for an “invasion” that is “killing our citizens.” Earlier in the day, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp complained at an event at the university that “the White House is not prepared to secure the southern border.”

A third Republican, Rep. Mike Collins, who represents Athens, wrote on social media, “Laken Riley's blood is on the hands of Joe Biden, Alejandro Mayorkas and the Athens-Clarke County government,” referring to the combined city-district government.

Many liberals have found such statements to be demagogic rhetoric piled on top of a terrible crime. In an interview Sunday, Kelly Girtz, the Democratic mayor of Athens-Clarke County, said the conversation should focus on grieving the victim and blaming an individual rather than a group.

“This murder was a violent, heinous act,” he said, “and it falls squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.”

When Laken Riley, 22, was found dead on a forest trail at the University of Georgia, it sent waves of grief and fear that shook the university to its core.

Athens' relatively liberal culture, its local immigration policies and border crisis, along with brutal crime, have created a toxic brew at Georgia's flagship university, where student politics rule the roost.

Outside the student center, Ella Jackson, 19, a freshman from Milton, Georgia, said she didn't feel unsafe or worried. However, she objected to the local government's policies toward undocumented immigrants. “I don’t really think it’s our job to house the illegal immigrants, and especially not this close to a college campus.”

In recent years there has been a proliferation of local left-leaning politicians in the city, including Mr. Girtz, who have placed a new focus on issues of social justice and correcting what they saw as persistent injustices in the Deep South. They have not shied away from embracing illegal immigrants and a Hispanic community whose numbers have increased dramatically in and around Athens over the past 30 years.

At the same time, Athens remains something of a holy place for Georgia conservatives. The massive university in the middle of the city has educated many of the state's most powerful Republicans, including Governor Kemp, a native of Athens. And the school's victorious football team, and the excitement and admiration that comes with it, are central Georgia traditions that Mr. Kemp and others conspicuously tie into a conservative fabric of culture and politics.

Mr. Kemp, a former Athens home builder and developer, won his first gubernatorial race in 2018 with a bold ad in which he declared: “I have a big truck just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and bring them home.” myself.” This month, he pledged to send Georgia National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico.

Mr. Girtz, the mayor, was first elected to the commission that governs the unified city-county government in 2006. He said that Athens' more activist group of politicians and their supporters emerged to some extent from the new wave and post-punk music scene that famously emerged in Athens in the early 1980s and gave the world REM and the B- 52 brought.

On Sunday morning at a cafe near campus, the mayor, wearing an olive military jacket and baseball cap, dismissed the idea that he was responsible for the killing. He said Rep. Collins, who accused him of having blood on his hands, was harboring “kind of a cartoon narrative about how the universe works.”

In addition to addressing issues of race and class that have long divided many of Athens' black and white residents, the new liberal lawmakers also took a defiantly anti-Trump stance toward undocumented immigrants, many of whom came to Athens, to work in poultry factories, or arrived during the construction boom of the early 2000s.

In 2018, under pressure from Mr. Girtz and others, then-local Sheriff Ira Edwards ended the practice of holding arrested immigrants in jail for 48 hours to give federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents a chance to pick them up for possible deportation.

The next year, Mr. Girtz and the commission passed a resolution denouncing white supremacy and declaring that undocumented people should “feel welcome and comfortable” dealing with the government.

And in 2020, voters elected a liberal district attorney, Deborah Gonzalez, who promised to “consider collateral consequences for undocumented defendants” in charging decisions.

Conservatives were horrified by this – and still are.

On Monday, State Representative Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, noted that Mr. Ibarra, the suspect in the University of Georgia murder, was issued a criminal citation for shoplifting at a Walmart in Athens in October, according to court records. Records show a warrant was issued for his arrest, meaning he most likely missed a court date.

There is “an atmosphere where Athens is a place that welcomes people who, quite frankly, shouldn't be in the United States,” Mr. Gaines said.

Mr. Ibarra was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol in September 2022 for illegally crossing the border and was quickly released into the country on a temporary residence permit, authorities said.

This release or parole was a practice of the Biden administration when officials were overwhelmed by high numbers of border crossings. This practice ended about six months later.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Mr. Ibarra was arrested in August in New York City on charges of child endangerment and violating a driver's license law. He eventually moved to Athens and lived in an apartment within walking distance of the crime scene.

A county library serves Pinewood Estates South, a mobile home park and one of several majority-Latino neighborhoods in Athens.Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times

In 2022, the Republican-led state Legislature carried out what Democrats said was a retaliatory act by redistricting Athens to strip the commission of three of its most liberal members. Ms. Gonzalez, the district attorney, was a key impetus last year for state lawmakers to create a commission with the power to remove prosecutors. (This commission is currently in limbo.)

Mr. Gaines said this week that he and other Republicans would try to push through bills in the coming days to tighten policies for undocumented immigrants.

At a trailer park north of the city, Jose Tapía, 50, a construction worker from Mexico and legal U.S. resident, said he expected things to become even more difficult for his undocumented neighbors. “I think there will be more excitement,” he said. “I’m sure the police will take stricter action.”