Georgia student’s death spurs Gov. Kemp and lawmakers to push state solutions for ‘failed federal policies’ on immigration 

Gov. Brian Kemp spoke about his legislative agenda at a Georgia Chamber event in January. Today he voiced his concerns over federal immigration policies at a meeting of the Athens Chamber of Commerce. (Credit: Jill Jordan Sieder)

Anti-immigration proponents on Monday may have gotten the necessary fuel they needed as Gov. Brian Kemp blamed “failed federal policies” for last week’s death of a Georgia college student allegedly at the hands of a man who had immigrated illegally. 

Kemp told the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast meeting that Augusta University nursing student Laken Riley’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.”

University of Georgia Police have charged Jose Antonio Ibarra, an immigrant from Venezuela, with kidnapping the 22-year-old while she was jogging on campus and murdering her. Ibarra, who authorities said entered the country illegally in 2022 and has since had a series of brushes with the law, had just been released from jail in Georgia a month ago and spent time in jail in New York City, reportedly for letting a child ride a scooter with no helmet.

“That is a failure of our system on multiple levels and at multiple times, and it resulted in a young woman’s death,” Kemp said. “That’s inexcusable.”

Kemp’s impassioned speech comes as state lawmakers are considering a slew of last-minute measures that must pass from one chamber to the other by Crossover Day, which is Thursday.

Outrage among Kemp and Republican lawmakers over Riley’s death is fueling a late-breaking push on legislation related to immigration and oversight of state prosecutors in the General Assembly.

On Tuesday, a House Public Safety and Homeland Security subcommittee is expected to take up Republican state Rep. Jesse Petrea’s House Bill 1105, also known as the Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act. The bill would require the state Department of Corrections to track the immigration status and criminal offenses of inmates who are not U.S. citizens and penalize sheriffs who don’t coordinate with federal immigration authorities.

“This tragedy is as lamentable as it is maddening,” House Speaker Jon Burns said in a statement over the weekend. “And while our state continues to mourn Laken’s loss, over the coming days, the Georgia House will be looking at ways to strengthen the security of our state, enhance public safety, and act where the federal government has failed to do so.” He added that House leadership “will be pressing for answers over the coming days as to why exactly the suspect and his brother continued to roam freely in the Athens area.”

Republicans have long been critical of so-called sanctuary cities whose laws limit local cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts in order to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution. Atlanta, Clayton County, DeKalb County and Athens-Clarke County are considered sanctuary cities. 

Senate President Pro Tem John Kennedy condemned sanctuary cities in a statement about Riley’s death, saying they “embolden criminals and endanger Georgians at the expense of the taxpayer.”

“Policies that shield criminal aliens from federal immigration authorities undermine our legal immigration system and prevent law enforcement officers from doing their job,” Kennedy said. 

Senate Bill 232, which would give the state broader powers to discipline or remove state prosecutors, passed the Senate and will be heard in a House committee today. Republicans sponsoring the bill have cited the policies of Athens-Clarke County District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez not to prosecute some low-level offenses, including misdemeanor marijuana possession, or to jail some undocumented immigrants found to be in the U.S. illegally, as impetus for the legislation.

While Riley’s death has elicited an outpouring of sympathy and outrage, it’s also evoked criticism from those who fear some will use her death as a political or campaign tool.

Alejandro Chavez (Credit: GALEO Impact Fund)

“And while there's a lot happening around the country, we can't allow ourselves to look at everything solely through a biased electoral lens or partisan or party lens,” said Alejandro Chavez, the grandson of the legendary civil rights and labor movement organizer Cesar Chavez.

“We also have to remember that the rhetoric that has been said out there is actually scaring and attacking and intimidating students who are Latin, documented and undocumented citizens and immigrants across the board,” said Chavez, who is working to get more Latinos elected to office in Georgia. 

“We should not use this young woman's tragic death as a reason to create more terror in the community. I don't think one person represents an entire culture or an entire group of people. What he did has nothing to do with his status. It had to do with him as a person. We have to remember that,” Chavez said.

Kemp also flexed his anti-immigration stance earlier this month when he and other governors went to the Texas border in support of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to combat illegal border crossings. Kemp, who has been to the southern border five times, bolstered his support, saying he plans to send additional Georgia National Guard members to the region. Kemp blamed Biden for the influx of fentanyl seizures at the border over the past year and warned that “drugs, weapons and dangerous criminals that aren’t stopped at the border head to other states, like ours.”

“We’re already putting more and more resources into public safety, including raising the pay of state law enforcement to retain and attract talented men and women who will keep our streets safe,” Kemp said in a statement. “All of these measures and more are designed with the same goal: to keep Georgians like you safe, and to keep your neighborhoods, schools, and businesses safe. Because everyone should feel secure in their own community.”

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify where Laken Riley attended college. We regret the error.

Have questions? Contact Jill Jordan Sieder on X @journalistajill or at [email protected] and Tammy Joyner on X @lvjoyner or at [email protected].

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