Laken Riley case: Suspect’s prior crimes too minor for ICE, experts say

Immigration lawyers say migrant charged in UGA campus death would not have been detained earlier in jurisdiction with stricter enforcement.
This banner was placed outside the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house at the University of Georgia, where Laken Hope Riley was a member. Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, was found dead in a wooded area on the UGA last Thursday. Police have charged Venezuelan national Jose Antonio Ibarra, whom authorities say entered the U.S. unlawfully, with murder. (Fletcher Page /

Credit: Fletcher Page

Credit: Fletcher Page

This banner was placed outside the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house at the University of Georgia, where Laken Hope Riley was a member. Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, was found dead in a wooded area on the UGA last Thursday. Police have charged Venezuelan national Jose Antonio Ibarra, whom authorities say entered the U.S. unlawfully, with murder. (Fletcher Page /

It is unlikely that the suspect charged in the death of nursing student Laken Hope Riley would have been detained earlier by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after his previous run-ins with police, even if those incidents had occurred outside so-called sanctuary cities, legal experts say.

Several Atlanta attorneys who specialize in the intersection of immigration and criminal law said Jose Antonio Ibarra, a Venezuelan who illegally entered the United States in 2022, would not have been a priority for ICE based on his 2023 traffic infringement charges in New York and shoplifting citation in Athens.

Police last Friday charged Ibarra, 26, with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call, and concealing Riley’s death. Riley, 22, was found in a wooded part of University of Georgia’s campus after not returning home from a morning run.

The homicide has become the latest flashpoint in the heated national debate over immigration and border policies and enforcement ahead of November’s presidential election.

Critics of local jurisdictions that limit coordination with federal immigration authorities say Riley’s death could have been prevented if police in New York or Athens had alerted ICE that they’d apprehended Ibarra in September and October, respectively.

But legal experts whose work includes representing immigrants pushed back on that theory.

“The reality is ICE will not detain somebody on a traffic offense, nor will they detain them on a charge of a misdemeanor,” said attorney Charles Kuck, an adjunct law professor at Emory University.

ICE did not immediately respond.

Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz fielded calls for his resignation over Riley’s death from a group of demonstrators Wednesday who claimed the county’s limited cooperation with immigration authorities makes it a sanctuary city. And conservative lawmakers have used the student’s slaying to champion legislation that would penalize sheriffs and jailers who don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents when someone in custody is not a U.S. citizen.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr said in a televised interview he posted on social media Thursday that deaths like Riley’s are the result of sanctuary city policies implemented by “socialist” and “elite left” leaders. He wrote in the post that “by refusing to enforce the law, the left has created a culture that coddles criminals.”

Sanctuary cities limit cooperation with immigration authorities, often by refusing to prolong the detention of people about to be released for federal agents who might want to deport them. Georgia law has banned sanctuary city policies for almost 15 years. Girtz said Wednesday there’s been no legislation from the Athens-Clarke County government that’s created a sanctuary city.

Ibarra’s immigration status remains unclear. ICE said he was arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Sept. 8, 2022, after illegally crossing the border near El Paso, Texas. He was paroled and released for further processing, ICE said. Lawyers say he was likely legally in the country at the time of last week’s arrest.

ICE said New York police arrested Ibarra in September 2023 and charged him with a motor vehicle license violation and acting in a manner to injure a child. He had reportedly ridden a moped with a child passenger who wasn’t restrained or wearing head protection.

ICE said the New York Police Department released Ibarra before it could lodge a detainer — a request that he be held for an additional 48 hours so agents could decide whether to take him into federal custody.

Jessica Stern, a leading “crimmigration” attorney in Atlanta, said traffic offenses are “the one area where ICE will pretty much admit that they’re not going to take action on somebody.”

On Oct. 27, 2023, Ibarra and his brother were apprehended by officers from the Athens-Clarke County Police Department and issued citations after being accused of stealing about $200 worth of food and clothing from a local Walmart. They were not arrested.

The department said it is standard practice to issue citations for certain misdemeanor crimes, including shoplifting. It said its officers don’t have immediate access to immigration status, which is typically checked by jailers during the booking process of an arrestee.

Records show that a bench warrant for Ibarra’s arrest was issued on Dec. 20 after he failed to appear in court on the theft charge. Bench warrants typically don’t prompt immediate attempts to find a defendant and put them in jail.

Stern said it is no surprise that Ibarra’s traffic and shoplifting charges did not immediately land him behind bars.

“In this particular instance, it does not seem unusual at all,” she said. “It’s not really a great example of the system failing.”

Emily Davis, an attorney who teaches an Emory University “crimmigration law” course, said the priorities for detaining and removing a noncitizen are threats to national security, public safety and border security. She said “ICE would likely not be notified in any jurisdiction” of a noncitizen’s traffic offense.

“The same is true of (Ibarra’s) shoplifting ticket,” Davis said. “ICE would not have been contacted with a citation and no arrest in any jurisdiction, sanctuary city or not.”

Like all law enforcement with limited resources, ICE determines on a case-by-case basis whether detaining someone is prudent, given various factors such as the severity of a crime, Stern said. Kuck said those who believe more noncitizens should be kept in ICE facilities should support the funding for it.

“ICE only has the money to detain about 35,000 people a night,” he said. “Those beds are full.”

Much of the tough-on-immigration response to Riley’s death has been focused on the fact that Ibarra illegally entered the country.

Kuck said Ibarra’s presence in the United States became lawful the moment he was paroled by border agents and began “residing under the color of law.”

Stern said Venezuelans have a strong case for asylum as millions flee political repression and poverty. They can also register for temporary protected status. Both avenues include at least temporary authorization to live and work in the United States.

Federal and local authorities had not divulged Ibarra’s immigration status as of early Friday afternoon.