‘Not fair’: After UGA killing, Venezuelans in Georgia worry about backlash

Laken Riley’s death puts Georgia at the forefront of the national immigration debate, and advocates are increasingly concerned.
After fleeing Venezuela, Klinsman Torres, 31, wound up at a hotel in metro Atlanta while working and seeking asylum in the United States. He's now worried that the recent killing on the UGA campus, in which another Venezuelan was arrested, will hurt his chances to legally remain in the country. Photo by Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com.

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

After fleeing Venezuela, Klinsman Torres, 31, wound up at a hotel in metro Atlanta while working and seeking asylum in the United States. He's now worried that the recent killing on the UGA campus, in which another Venezuelan was arrested, will hurt his chances to legally remain in the country. Photo by Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com.

Klinsman Torres is a migrant from Venezuela currently living and working in metro Atlanta. He unlawfully crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in August 2022 — just weeks before countryman Jose Antonio Ibarra did the same, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On Feb. 23, Ibarra became a nationally known figure, after being charged with kidnapping and murdering a nursing student at the University of Georgia who had gone out for a jog. Laken Riley, the victim, was 22. Her death is believed to be the first homicide on campus in nearly 30 years.

Torres says that the Athens killing — and the bright spotlight it has placed on border policy — have loomed large in recent conversations with fellow Georgia-based Venezuelans. They are worried that inflammatory rhetoric around immigrants and immigration could reverse the gains they’ve made as low-income workers in the local economy.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen in the short term,” Torres said. But “I don’t think this is going to end well for us.”

Immigration was already an important sticking point in the national discourse when Riley’s murder sent shockwaves of grief throughout Athens and beyond. Reports of record-breaking numbers of illegal border crossings since 2021 have galvanized Republican leaders, and led Democrats to embrace tough enforcement bills. On Tuesday, new Gallup polling data found Americans consider immigration the country’s single most important problem.

Students have altered the sign at Lake Herrick as part of a makeshift memorial to honor Laken Riley, who was killed on the UGA campus last week while running on the trails nearby. Photo by Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Nell Carroll for the AJC

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Credit: Nell Carroll for the AJC

Riley’s death at the alleged hands of Ibarra has ratcheted up the tension. On social media, former President Donald J. Trump called the Venezuelan national a “monster,” putting the blame on the Biden administration for a migrant “invasion” that is “killing our citizens.” Fresh from sending more Georgia National Guard troops to the southern border, Gov. Brian Kemp also linked the bloodshed at UGA to federal immigration policy, calling the murder “inexcusable and avoidable.”

In a statement, the head of the Georgia Republican Party, former state Sen. Josh McKoon, called out “illegal alien violence” and blamed Biden for allowing “a Venezuelan illegal alien to come here and commit this crime.”

On average, unauthorized immigrants are half as likely to be arrested for violent crimes as U.S.-born citizens, the data show.

In Torres’ view, “it’s not fair” for an individual to taint a broader community that came to the U.S. “with dreams of growth, of improving their lives.”

Like many of the Venezuelans who came to the U.S. in recent years, Torres’ journey included several days trudging through the Darién Gap, a dangerous stretch of jungle connecting Colombia and Panama. He left Venezuela with next to no resources or belongings, and he arrived in this country having no family or friends he could turn to for help settling in.

When Torres made his way to Atlanta in September 2022, he had to rely on a local Latino-serving nonprofit for two weeks’ worth of free accommodation at a hotel. Unlike the experience of fellow Venezuelan migrants who ended up in places like New York City, which has spent millions to provide housing to destitute newcomers, there were no local or state funds to help.

Some relief eventually came from the federal government.

Last September, the Biden administration made more Venezuelan nationals present on U.S. territory eligible for a temporary humanitarian status that confers protection from deportation and offers work permits and drivers’ licenses.

Republican critics worried that it was a move that would incentivize more migrants to try and come. It is unclear whether Ibarra applied for that status and benefited from those extra protections.

“We should be taking advantage of this amazing opportunity that this country has given us,” Torres said. “For a lot of people, we Venezuelans are really blessed. … Right now this is our home and we need to contribute to this country the way so many of us have been doing.”

Currently working at an area hotel, Torres says he shares in the belief that U.S. authorities could be more discerning at the border and prevent would-be troublemakers from getting in. If Ibarra is found guilty, he would like to see him receive the toughest of possible penalties.

But he also adds that Ibarra is not representative of the surge of Venezuelans who’ve entered the country in recent years. He says most of them are like him, desperate to work hard to get ahead, both for themselves and for the family members they still have back in their homeland.

“There’s much more good than bad” in the Venezuelan community, he said.

Jose Ramos agrees. The Venezuelan migrant and restaurant worker arrived in metro Atlanta in August 2022, after he left his home to escape poverty. He says that Venezuelans in the U.S. should try to hold themselves to a higher standard, to make sure doors remain open to more compatriots who haven’t had the chance to emigrate.

“We have to make a positive difference. Wherever we work, wherever we go, we have to make a positive difference and show we are determined. Unfortunately, there’s some people who come who don’t do that, and they tarnish our image,” he said in reference to Ibarra, whose alleged involvement in Riley’s murder left him “extremely disappointed.”

“Anyone who comes here to do bad things, what they are doing is closing the doors to lots of people who also want to come over, and try to find new opportunities for a better life here.”

Safety concerns

Georgia immigrant advocates have also been feeling the impact of the more robust politicization around immigration.

On Jan. 31, a Republican state senator uploaded on social media a filmed interaction with volunteers of an immigrant-serving nonprofit that assists migrants at the Atlanta airport. That post falsely accused the nonprofit of human trafficking – and promptly went viral, triggering Fox News coverage.

Uproar and media frenzy over Riley’s killing is already making local immigrant advocates’ work even more fraught.

Gigi Pedraza says hate messages poured in when the organization she leads, Latino Community Fund Georgia, posted a statement in response to the Athens tragedy. The statement noted that characteristics such as immigration status “should not be used to make generalizations, assumptions, or accusations about large groups of people.”

“I think we were all shocked and just devastated by the murder,” Pedraza said. “But quite frankly, we have also been devastated by the narrative that immediately started trying to blame an entire ethnic group. It is disingenuous. … And we are also really concerned for the safety of our community members.”

Luis Zaldivar is the Georgia State Director of CASA in Action, a group that represents Latino voters. He is expecting a complicated next several months in his attempts to engage with local elected officials.

“Working on the field this year will be particularly challenging because the few allies we have can hide and yield to the pressure of both parties trying to score political points,” Zaldivar said. “We are going to move forward with our advocacy at counties and municipal level, where the contributions of immigrant communities are so clear to local officials they cannot hide it.”

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