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Georgia lawmakers push immigration bills in response to nursing student’s death

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Georgia lawmakers push immigration bills in response to nursing student’s death

Feb 27, 2024 | 1:00 am ET
By Ross Williams
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Georgia lawmakers push immigration bills in response to UGA student’s death
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On Friday, Feb. 23, 2024, Athens-Clarke County Police searched Cielo Azulyk, an apartment complex in Athens, Georgia, for evidence connecting suspect Jose Antonio Ibarra to the Thursday murder of Laken Riley, an area nursing student. Credit: Chase McGee/GPB News

The killing of 22-year-old Laken Riley on the University of Georgia campus last week shocked and horrified people far beyond Athens. On Monday, the immigration status of the suspect in her killing reignited a debate over immigration policy in the Georgia Legislature and appears to have increased the odds of immigration-related legislation becoming state law.

According to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, 26-year-old Jose Ibarra, a Venezuelan, entered the country illegally in 2022 and was previously arrested in New York and charged with acting in a manner to injure a child, according to news reports. Athens-Clarke County Police Department documents show Ibarra was also cited in Athens for shoplifting in October and had a bench warrant for his arrest for failing to show up to court.

Ibarra remains in police custody after he was denied bond over the weekend.

Gov. Brian Kemp, who announced earlier this month that the Georgia National Guard would deploy additional troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, continued to place the blame for Riley’s death on federal immigration policy and President Joe Biden.

“Look, the president could come out and change policies today,” Kemp said during a Monday appearance on Fox News. “He could simply signal with the bully pulpit of the White House, ‘local law enforcement, please, if you have these people that are here, that are illegal, that are non-citizens and they commit a crime in our country, please notify ICE.’ It’s as simple as that. ICE can work with local governments, with state governments to deal with these people and hopefully prevent situations like we saw with Laken.”

Top Democrats accused the GOP majority of playing politics during a time of tragedy.

“The majority saw her death as an opportunity to promote and defend Donald Trump,” said Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler. “Georgia’s Republicans rushed to blame President Biden for this murderous presence in Athens.”

Butler criticized congressional Republicans for walking away from a border bill with concessions to border security, arguing that leaving the bill on the table allows Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to campaign on the issue.

“Our border crisis continues because Donald Trump has convinced one party that the only thing that matters is putting Donald Trump first, no matter the cost.”

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff also sought to blame Trump for what he called an immigration crisis.

“The situation at the southern border is a real crisis,” said Ossoff after paying a visit to the state House and Senate Monday and leading a moment of silence for Riley. “And as I’ve said repeatedly over the years, for too long, too many Democrats have been unwilling to acknowledge that we need legislation, and we need implementation. And that’s why the former president’s decision to deliberately tank the bipartisan border security legislation that was proceeding through the Senate was so destructive, in my view, to our national security.”

In a fiery floor speech, Cumming Republican Sen. Greg Dolezal said Biden has been too soft on immigration.

“We were lectured during the debate and given the left-wing talking point that no human is illegal,” he said. “Was Laken’s murderer illegal? We talk about we need more laws. We need more of this. We need more of that. No we don’t. We need to enforce the laws that are on the books.”

Proposed laws

At least three House Republicans believe Georgia does need more laws.

Athens Republican Rep. Houston Gaines’ HB 1359 passed through a committee Monday. If it becomes law, it would let homeowners get a refund on their property taxes if their local government does not enforce laws, including by adopting a sanctuary policy.

“We’ve seen here over the last five days just the devastating consequences of local governments and the federal government not doing its job, not enforcing laws,” Gaines said. “The federal government obviously has totally failed when it comes to our southern border, we’ve seen that repeatedly, but in I live in Athens, and Athens-Clarke County, our local government has failed as well, and frankly, there are things that could have been done and should have been done over many years that unfortunately resulted in this absolute tragedy in our community last week.”

His legislation and any other bill has until Thursday to pass one chamber if it is to have a clear path to becoming law this year.

Rep. Jesse Petrea’s House Bill 1105 would make it an aggravated misdemeanor for jailers not to keep track of data on inmates who are not U.S. citizens, including their immigration status and country of origin.

When someone is sent to jail and is determined to be undocumented, officers are supposed to send information to ICE. If the immigration agency wants the person, it can send a detainer or a warrant, said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association

“The warrant has greater significance than a detainer,” Norris said. “Many times, though, when somebody’s arrested and he goes through this process, ICE or the law enforcement support group, they don’t give you anything back because they don’t know these people. I mean, they haven’t encountered this person, so they don’t know that they’re even in the country.”

“If there’s no warrant put on them or a hold put on them by the federal authorities, then really after 24 hours, they’ll release them if they make bond,” he said.

Petrea said some sheriffs do not report that data to ICE.

“Sadly, you have sheriffs all over the state who are not doing so, some certainly intentionally not not doing so,” the Savannah Republican, said.

Petrea said he’s been working on issues like this for years, but this one might gain more attention because of the shocking nature of the current case.

“Sadly, yes, people become more knowledgeable about it when a horrible tragedy occurs, but that isn’t the only one,” Petrea said.

Dallas Republican Martin Momtahan’s House Bill 1102 calls on the Department of Public Safety to make a regular list of inmates whose sentences are nearly up and who are in the country illegally. Every 30 days, the department would send the list to the attorney general’s office, which could file for a writ of transfer of the inmate to a “sanctuary state,” defined as a state that restricts law enforcement from communicating with federal agencies about immigration status.

Norris said he supports the idea behind the sheriff bills, but he would prefer some tweaks.

“We’re not in favor of reporting to the Department of Audits, but we are in favor of expanding our jail report to ask a few questions about illegals that are arrested, how many have been arrested, for instance, how many reports to ICE, how many detainers came back and how many warrants came back,” he said.

Deputy Editor Jill Nolin contributed to this report.