Georgia Republicans poised to target illegal immigration after Athens killing

ATHENS — Georgia Republicans are expected to pursue a slate of measures targeting illegal immigration after a suspect who officials say was in the U.S. illegally was charged with murder in the death of a student on the University of Georgia’s campus.

Senior Republicans are considering several still-evolving proposals, such as more stringent requirements that local governments cooperate with federal immigration authorities and stiffer penalties for illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.

The election-year push for new crackdowns comes after nursing student Laken Riley was found dead on a wooded trail on campus hours after she went for a run.

The suspect charged with her death, Jose Antonio Ibarra, is a Venezuela native who authorities say entered the U.S. illegally in 2022 and was previously arrested in New York. His brother has also been charged with having a fake green card.

House Speaker Jon Burns, Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy and other legislative leaders have indicated they will back new immigration-related measures in response to Riley’s killing. They’ll face a tight deadline with just weeks to go in the 2024 legislative session.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who addressed an Athens business group early Monday, is said to be receptive to state-level immigration measures, though he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he wouldn’t comment on specific proposals.

Instead, he has ratcheted up calls for President Joe Biden to shut down the U.S. border with Mexico and take other steps to deter uncontrolled migration. Earlier this month, he outlined plans to deploy more Georgia National Guard troops to Texas to patrol the border.

“This community and this entire country have been rocked by this inexcusable and avoidable murder,” Kemp said in Athens. “Laken’s death is a direct result of failed policies on the federal level and an unwillingness by this White House to secure the southern border.”

Former President Donald Trump also invoked the killing in a social media post, writing it “should NEVER have happened” as he vowed to seal the U.S. border and launch the “largest deportation operation” of unauthorized immigrants in the nation if elected.

Biden and Trump are both planning visits to the southern border on Thursday.

The president will travel to Brownsville, Texas, where he will meet border agents and discuss the need for bipartisan legislation.

Trump is expected to head to Eagle Pass, Texas, more than 300 miles away from Brownsville, where state and federal law enforcement have clashed over border security.

Mourners laid flowers at Lake Herrick at the University of Georgia in Athens on Friday. Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, was found dead nearby on Thursday. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

Democrats have accused Republicans of seeking to score political points in an election year. And some party leaders slammed congressional GOP leaders for refusing to adopt a bipartisan U.S. Senate bill that would have made it harder for migrants to apply for asylum once they’ve entered the country illegally.

It was scuttled at the urging of Trump, the GOP front-runner who urged fellow Republicans to squelch the deal to keep illegal immigration alive as a campaign issue against Biden.

“If Republicans truly cared about border issues, they’d have passed recent bipartisan immigration reform instead of pandering to Trump,” said state Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Gwinnett County. “The hypocrisy is unreal.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff sounded a similar note.

“We just in the Senate came quite close to enacting historic border security legislation on a bipartisan basis. Politics got in the way,” said the first-term Democrat, who addressed the Legislature on Monday.

“The crisis at the southern border is real. It’s a threat to our national security,” Ossoff said. “And I remain committed to try and find a path forward to enact bipartisan border security legislation.”

‘We must get it done’

It’s not immediately clear what immigration-related legislation will emerge, but key GOP lawmakers took note of recommendations by Insurance Commissioner John King, the first statewide Latino elected official in Georgia history.

King, a native of Mexico, urged lawmakers to ban illegal immigrants charged with violent crimes from receiving bond “under any circumstances.” He also said legislators should block illegal immigrants who are convicted of a crime from being eligible for parole or early release.

“This is a logical, long overdue step that will keep criminal aliens behind bars where they belong and save lives,” King wrote in an AJC op-ed. “The time to act is now, before another tragedy strikes another family, and we must get it done.”

Tino Kemp of Jackson EMC greets Gov. Brian Kemp at a policy breakfast Monday in Athens. The governor and first lady Marty Kemp spoke on recent events in the state and provided updates on matters such as the economy and public safety. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll

icon to expand image

Credit: Nell Carroll

Others advocate for new restrictions on so-called “sanctuary” cities. Georgia law has banned cities and counties from adopting a “sanctuary policy” for nearly 15 years. But some local governments, including Athens-Clarke County, have limited their cooperation with federal immigration officials.

Athens-Clarke authorities say they check the criminal history of detainees to hold anyone with outstanding warrants but don’t keep unauthorized immigrants jailed if they have no criminal history.

State Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, has already introduced legislation that would penalize sheriffs who don’t coordinate with federal immigration authorities. Legislative leaders expect the measure, House Bill 1105, to gain traction.

And state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, has a pending measure that would allow residents to file civil litigation seeking tax refunds if their local governments aren’t enforcing immigration and criminal justice laws.

“At the end of the day, local governments respond when it hits their pocketbook,” Gaines said. “And this would take that property tax funding away.”

Athens-Clarke Mayor Kelly Girtz is among the local leaders who support the county’s immigration policies. A longtime teacher, Girtz said he’s seen the lives of his students turned upside down when their parents are detained by authorities solely based upon their immigration status.

“The children then suffer from the effects of their loss of employment or dislocation,” he said. “Anything that destabilizes a family creates spillover effects.”

Others are also pressuring lawmakers to turn their focus on Athens-Clarke’s policies. U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, a Republican who represents Athens in Congress, said local officials must be held “accountable.”

“While we may be limited in tools to force this president to reverse course,” he said, “we have more leverage to get our local leaders in line with protecting innocent Georgia citizens and should respond accordingly.”

Insurance Commissioner John King, a native of Mexico and the first Latino to win statewide office, urged lawmakers in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed to ban bond "under any circumstances" for illegal immigrants charged with violent crimes. He also said legislators should block illegal immigrants who are convicted of a crime from being eligible for parole or early release. (Arvin Temkar /

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Staff writers Patricia Murphy, Mark Niesse and Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this article.

This story has been updated to correct an error when quoting Gov. Brian Kemp.