The death of Georgia student Laken Riley advances Gov. Kemp's push for immigration reform

Anti-immigrant advocates may have gotten the boost they needed Monday when Gov. Brian Kemp blamed “failed federal policy” for the death of a Georgia college student last week, allegedly at the hands of a man who was an illegal immigrant .

Kemp told the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast meeting that the death of Augusta University nursing student Laken Riley “is a direct result of failed federal policy and the White House's unwillingness to secure the southern border.”

University of Georgia police have charged Jose Antonio Ibarra, an immigrant from Venezuela, with kidnapping and murdering the 22-year-old as she jogged on campus. Ibarra, who authorities say entered the country illegally in 2022 and has had multiple run-ins with the law since then, was released from prison in Georgia just a month ago and spent time in prison in New York City, allegedly because he let a child ride a scooter without a helmet.

“This is a failure of our system on multiple levels and at multiple points in time and resulted in the death of a young woman,” Kemp said. “This is inexcusable.”

Kemp's impassioned speech comes as state lawmakers consider a series of last-minute measures that must pass from one chamber to the other by Crossover Day, Thursday.

Outrage among Kemp and Republican lawmakers over Riley's death is fueling a groundbreaking push for immigration legislation and oversight of prosecutors in the General Assembly.

On Tuesday, a House Public Safety and Homeland Security subcommittee is expected to consider Republican Rep. Jesse Petrea's House Bill 1105, also known as the Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act. The bill would require the state Department of Corrections to track the immigration status and crimes of inmates who are not U.S. citizens and punish sheriffs who do not coordinate with federal immigration authorities.

“This tragedy is as unfortunate as it is insane,” House Speaker Jon Burns said in a statement over the weekend. “And as our state continues to mourn Laken’s loss, in the coming days the Georgia House will look for ways to strengthen our state’s security, improve public safety, and intervene where the federal government has failed to do so. He added that House leadership “will push for answers in the coming days as to why exactly the suspect and his brother continued to move freely in the Athens area.”

Republicans have long criticized so-called sanctuary cities, whose laws limit local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution. Atlanta, Clayton County, DeKalb County and Athens-Clarke County are considered sanctuary cities.

Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy condemned “sanctuary cities” in a statement following Riley's death, saying they “embolden criminals and endanger Georgians at taxpayer expense.”

“Policies that protect criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities undermine our legal immigration system and prevent law enforcement officers from doing their jobs,” Kennedy said.

Senate Bill 232, which would give the state broader authority to discipline or remove prosecutors, has passed the Senate and will be heard in a House committee today. Republicans supporting the bill have cited Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez's policy of not prosecuting some minor crimes, including marijuana possession, or not prosecuting some undocumented immigrants as the impetus for the legislation illegally residing in the USA, to be imprisoned.

While Riley's death sparked widespread sympathy and outrage, it also sparked criticism from those who fear that some may use her death as a political or campaign tool.

Alejandro Chavez (Source: GALEO Impact Fund)

“And while there is a lot happening across the country, we cannot afford to look at everything through only one biased electoral, partisan or partisan lens,” said Alejandro Chavez, the grandson of legendary civil rights and labor movement organizer Cesar Chávez.

“We must also remember that the rhetoric that has been out there is actually aimed at fearing, attacking and intimidating Latinos, registered and undocumented citizens, and immigrants across the board,” said Chavez, the advocate that more Latinos are being elected to office in Georgia.

“We should not use the tragic death of this young woman as an opportunity to spread more terror in the community. I don't believe that one person represents an entire culture or an entire group of people. What he did has nothing to do with his status. It had to do with him as a person. We have to remember that,” Chavez said.

Kemp also expressed his anti-immigrant stance earlier this month when he and other governors went to the Texas border to support Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's efforts to crack down on illegal border crossings. Kemp, who has been to the southern border five times, reiterated his support and said he plans to send more Georgia National Guard members to the region. Kemp blamed Biden for the spate of fentanyl seizures at the border last year, warning that “drugs, weapons and dangerous criminals not stopped at the border end up in other states like ours.”

“We are already investing increasing resources in public safety, including increasing state law enforcement salaries, to retain and attract talented men and women to keep our streets safe,” Kemp said in a statement. “All of these measures and more have the same goal: to ensure the safety of Georgians like you and the safety of your neighborhoods, schools and businesses. Because everyone should feel safe in their own community.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify where Laken Riley attended college. We regret the error.

Have any questions? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder at @journalistajill or at [email protected] and Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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