Georgia Republicans explore new immigration measures after Laken Riley’s killing

Family members laid flowers at the Lake Allyn M. Herrick sign in Athens at the University of Georgia on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Laken Riley, a 22-year-old, nursing student was found dead nearby on Thursday. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

Family members laid flowers at the Lake Allyn M. Herrick sign in Athens at the University of Georgia on Friday, Feb. 23, 2024. Laken Riley, a 22-year-old, nursing student was found dead nearby on Thursday. (Jason Getz /

ATHENS – Senior Georgia Republicans said Saturday they are exploring new state crackdowns on illegal immigration after a suspect from Venezuela was charged with the murder of a student on the University of Georgia’s campus.

Prominent Democrats, meanwhile, urged state leaders not to exploit the tragedy for political gains as new details emerged about the death of 22-year-old Laken Riley, a nursing student from Woodstock who was found dead near a campus lake hours after she went out for a run.

Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, is being held without bond on murder and other charges after his Friday arrest. Authorities say he is not a U.S. citizen but have not commented further on his immigration status. Federal officials charged Ibarra’s brother Diego Ibarra, who is also from Venezuela, with possession of a fraudulent document after presenting a fake green card.

Republicans who have long criticized President Joe Biden’s border policies invoked Riley’s death to renew calls for stricter immigration controls amid an election year when the White House and every legislative and congressional seat is up for grabs.

“This could have been prevented if we would just secure our border,” U.S. Rep. Mike Collins, a Republican who represents Athens, said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “At what point do we stop this insanity?”

U.S. Rep. Mike Collins speaks in front of supporters of Former President Donald Trump during Team Trump Iowa Campaign event ahead of Iowa Caucus at ShinyTop Brewery, Monday, January 15, 2024, in Fort Dodge, Iowa. (Hyosub Shin/

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

icon to expand image

Credit: Hyosub Shin/AJC

The killing also escalated a long-simmering fight between conservative politicians and officials in Athens-Clarke County, a liberal bastion whose leaders have long been accused of lax enforcement policies and a refusal to crack down on violent crime.

Georgia Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy, the top Republican in the chamber, blasted “policies that shield criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities” as he suggested state lawmakers could take new steps to crack down on undocumented migrants.

And House Speaker Jon Burns said his chamber would explore “ways to strengthen the security of our state, enhance public safety and act where the federal government has failed to do so.”

Gov. Brian Kemp, meanwhile, sent a letter Saturday to the White House demanding details such as the immigration status of the suspect charged with the murder of a student on UGA’s campus.

“The American people deserve to know who is illegally entering our country due to your administration’s failures,” wrote Kemp, “and what risks and challenges every state must now face.”

Among his questions: “What additional information does your administration possess regarding these individuals and the circumstances surrounding their entry into the country?”

‘Opportunity to grieve’

Recent polls show an increasing number of voters are concerned about illegal immigration and congressional gridlock over legislation to make it harder for migrants to legally enter the U.S.

The number of people illegally crossing into the U.S. from Mexico reached record levels late last year, and Biden recently vowed to shut down the border “right now” if Congress gave him the authority.

But a bipartisan Senate deal that would have made it harder for migrants to apply for asylum once they’ve entered the country illegally stalled after former President Donald Trump pressured Republicans to “fight it all the way” to squeeze Biden’s reelection bid.

Laken Riley is shown in this August 2023 photo from the White Coat Ceremony for Augusta University's College of Nursing, where she was a student. (Courtesy of Augusta University)

Credit: Courtesy of Augusta University

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Augusta University

Democratic state Sen. Jason Esteves, one of the state’s top Latino elected officials, said now is the time to mourn, not jockey for political advantage.

“This is a tragedy and Laken Riley’s family deserves the opportunity to grieve without her story being used by certain politicians to score cheap political points,” he said.

“Those who bring up border security should take that up with former President Trump, who just two weeks ago whipped congressional Republicans into shelving a bipartisan bill that would have helped secure our borders.”

Collins said Biden and a Congress under full Democratic control during the president’s first two years in office could have acted by now.

“Republicans aren’t playing politics,” he told the AJC. “That’s hypocritical. They’ve had years to take this issue up. We need that border secure down there.”

A ‘dangerous’ backdrop

Georgia law has banned cities and counties from adopting a “sanctuary policy” for nearly 15 years, and lawmakers in 2016 required local governments to certify they’re complying with federal immigration policies involving undocumented immigrants to receive state funding.

But some local governments have limited their cooperation with federal immigration officials. That includes Athens-Clarke County, where officials don’t coordinate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials involving detainees.

That means authorities check the criminal history of detainees to hold anyone with outstanding warrants but don’t keep undocumented immigrants jailed if they have no criminal history, Athens-Clarke Mayor Kelly Girtz said.

Some lawmakers expected a renewed push under the Gold Dome to crackdown on illegal immigration ahead of a key legislative deadline next week, though it’s not immediately clear what steps they will take.

Among the ideas floated in GOP circles is legislation that would deny any migrant in the country illegal charged with a violent crime from receiving bond, and new efforts to deport those convicted of crimes when their sentence is completed.

Already, the Republican-led Legislature pushed through a resolution that condemned Biden’s immigration policies, endorsed a border wall and backed Kemp’s decision to deploy Georgia National Guard troops to Texas to block illegal crossings.

Some also want new scrutiny of local policies. Republican state Sen. Jason Anavitarte, one of the state’s most influential GOP Latino officials, claimed politicians in Athens have cultivated a “dangerous community environment.”

“This tragedy could have been avoided if the rule of law was followed and we didn’t have local politicians advocating for basically open borders,” he said.

Anavitarte is one of the most outspoken critics of Athens-Clarke District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, who Republicans long cited as an impetus for controversial legislation that gives the state new powers to sanction or oust so-called “rogue” prosecutors.

He and other Republicans have criticized the Democrat’s handling of high-profile cases, her decision not to prosecute certain low-level drug offenses and a mass departure of staff attorneys on her watch.

Gonzalez, who has criticized Republicans for “overstepping” by targeting her criminal justice approach, said she’s committed to bringing Riley’s killer to justice.

“My office will always stand strong on violent crime,” Gonzalez said. “No matter who you are, this office will work tirelessly to convict you in a court of law.”

Athens District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez

Credit: File photo

icon to expand image

Credit: File photo