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Georgia bypasses federal help, forges own path with older foster care youth, but is it enough?
In the last year and a half, Georgia has spent more than $42 million of its own money providing housing and other extended care services to hundreds of young adults getting ready to age out of its foster care system.
It’s a tidy sum but child advocates say Georgia has access to millions more in federal dollars to help foster youth between the ages of 18 and 21. But state officials continue to bypass the federal money saying the process for getting it is too complicated.
“Georgia can go further,” Todd Lloyd, senior policy associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, told State Affairs. “You can go further for these young people. And you could go further than what it currently is if they were to partner with the federal government towards these costs.”
Georgia forging own path
Some 36 states and Washington, D.C. are participating in Title IV-E extended foster care, a federal program that reimburses them for providing extended care foster care to young people between the ages of 18 and 21. These states get millions of dollars in reimbursement — ranging from 50 cents to 80 cents back for every $1 spent — for housing, feeding, clothing and other services and resources given to older foster youth. The reimbursements also cover staff pay and training and case management — all administrative tasks tied to providing extended foster care for young adults.
Georgia, however, isn’t participating in the federal Title IV-E extended foster care program, consequently, it is leaving millions of dollars on the table, according to child welfare and advocacy experts.
“Extended foster care is fully state-funded,” Candice Broce, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Services, told State Affairs. “Because we’re state-funded, we have more flexibility in how we run the program. And we can actually do more than what the IV-E funds and those restrictions [allow].”
Broce’s agency oversees the state’s foster care system.
“It’s far more extensive documentation,” Broce said, when asked to explain the restrictions. “Right now, in the 40 programs that we do for our kids entering foster care, we have a whole team whose only job is to run their eligibility, and it takes months and months and months and constant calculations. It’s very complex. They're essentially accountants. So I think that’s probably what it is. It’s basically burdensome documentation. It's [extended care for older youth] already state-funded. We have no shortage of funds from the state to make sure we have those kids and expenditure.”
In the first half of fiscal year 2024, which ran from last July to December 2023, the state spent $13 million to provide extended care for older foster youth. There are currently 648 young adults in Georgia’s extended foster care program.
“If they're spending $13 million, I'm sure some of those older youth are eligible under Title IV-E because some of them are still in high school who are not working or not working very much,” Lloyd said. Georgia could be getting reimbursed at least 50 cents for every dollar it spends helping young adults through its extended care program, Lloyd noted.
Neighboring Tennessee, for instance, served 691 young people between the ages of 18 and 21 in its federally-supported extended foster care program last year. The state has been involved since 2010 in the Title IV-E Extension of Foster Care program which has reimbursed the state for placing youth in foster homes or supervised independent living and staff case management costs for each young adult. The program has also helped young people get jobs and transportation and go to college and pursue other advanced degrees as well as other wraparound services.
In fiscal year 2023, for instance, Tennessee received over $1.25 million from the Title IV-E Extension of Foster Care program or $1,809.88 per young person. That’s in addition to the money the state was already spending for extended care.
“It afforded Tennessee the opportunity to serve more young adults in their transition into adulthood,” Courtney Matthews, director of Independent Living for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, told State Affairs. “Prior to the Title IV-E Extension of Foster Care program, Tennessee served young adults that aged out of foster care on a limited basis who were pursuing secondary education.”
Tennessee has a “team of Independent Living Specialists in all 12 regions of the state that assists the young adults with completing the Title IV-E application and other Extension of Foster Care initial paperwork,” Matthews said. The application process is done by the Maximization Specialist in each region to determine young people’s eligibility for Title IV-E extended funds, she added.
Similarly, South Carolina, which at one time didn’t even have extended care for foster youth over age 18, is in the process of implementing its own federally-supported Title IV-E extended care program for those young adults. Officials with the South Carolina Department of Social Services declined to discuss the program because it’s still new to them.
Georgia meanwhile has preferred to strike out on its own when it comes to providing extended care for its young adults in foster care. Despite its claims of success and self-sufficiency, the state may be falling short, particularly in rural areas. Several nonprofits across the state have stepped in to assist young people aging out of foster care who are falling through the cracks.
The number of young adults coming into and leaving the child welfare/foster care system at any given time is “fluid,” said Melissa Carter, director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory Law School. Thus, it’s hard to keep exact track of the number of youth benefitting from the state’s program at any given point.
“Overall, our extended youth support services is a real positive feature of our child welfare and foster care systems [in Georgia],” Carter said. “I'm much more interested in the adequacy and quality of the services and opportunities that are provided to our young adults than about what the source of funding is.”
The biggest challenge is finding adequate and affordable housing for young people who are struggling to make ends meet or who need a place to stay when the college they’re attending closes for holiday breaks, Carter said, adding, “They're at a vulnerable time of transition in their lives and we don't have the ability to provide them with that stability.”
The cost of dismantling
Last year, 539 young people turned 18 while in foster care in Georgia, according to Kylie Winton, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Human Services. They either signed themselves into the department’s custody voluntarily for extended youth services or they left foster care altogether.
All told, 5.7% of the young people in Georgia foster care are between the ages of 18 and 21, Winton said. Although the state has extended foster care for young people to the age of 21, some are choosing to leave the system.
About 700 kids age out of Georgia’s foster care system each year, according to Connections Homes, a nonprofit that works to link young adults with families.
In fact, more youth “age out” of the system in Georgia than the rest of the country. The Annie E. Casey Foundation report found that 59% of Georgia foster kids age out versus 52% nationwide. Black and Hispanic youth disproportionately leave with no viable support, the report noted. Among 21 year olds, roughly 1 in 4 who left Georgia’s foster care system ended up homeless in 2021, according to the Casey report.
One child welfare expert said any additional money that could help young adults in foster care transition smoothly into adulthood would be an asset for Georgia.
“In general, the more money that we can get to provide assistance to these kids, the better off they'll be as adults and that just really adds to the stability of our own economy and for our communities,” Bobby Cagle, head of the child welfare division of Caresource, a nonprofit that provides public health programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, told State Affairs.
Cagle headed Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services and served as commissioner of Early Care and Learning between 2011 and 2017. Cagle declined to comment on whether Georgia should be participating in the federal Title IV-E program, saying, “I would need to really study the figures before I can comment intelligently on that. I’ve not looked at their budget since 2017.”
Some child advocacy agencies were reluctant to talk about the state’s decision to bypass the Title IV-E reimbursement program because they have to work closely with state lawmakers and depend on the state for funding.
Observers noted that the Department of Human Services, which oversees foster care, is dealing with a barrage of other issues such as the Medicaid eligibility determination process known as Medicaid unwinding. The agency is also running behind on its eligibility process for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, a federal food program for low-income families.
Putting the federal Title IV-E extended care program in place in Georgia would be “incredibly complicated and not easy and will involve system changes in multiple ways like financial system changes, process system changes,” said a spokesman for one child advocacy organization who asked not to be named. “The undoing and the dismantling of the current system would be really hard and it's not a priority because it's hard,” she said.
Broaching the subject
Foster care has taken on heightened importance in the Senate in the last year, with leadership creating a special study committee to zero in on the foster care issue more thoroughly.
The Senate Study Committee on Foster Care and Adoption was created by the passage of Senate Resolution 282 during the 2023 legislative session to elevate the issue of foster care. The issue is one of Lt. Gov. Burt Jones’ top priorities to better address the needs of families and children, especially those in the state adoption and foster care system. The study committee released a final report of recommendations last November for lawmakers.
State Affairs reached out to all 10 members of the Senate Committee on Children and Families for comment about the state’s non-participation in the federal extended care program.
“This decision is up to the governor. I don’t know enough about it to comment,” said Sen. Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, who chairs both the children and families committee and the Study Committee on Foster Care and Adoption.
But another children and families committee member said he plans to look into the federal Title IV-E extended foster care provision that would reimburse at least 50 cents on every dollar Georgia spends.
“That's a significant injection of resources that those kids can have. And again, we're talking about the most vulnerable children,” Sen. Jason Esteves, D-Atlanta, told State Affairs.
Esteves, who also was unaware of the situation, added, “My initial reaction is that in a time where state agencies are requesting more money and more resources to tackle some of these issues, we shouldn't be turning away money. When we think about our foster care youth who are the most vulnerable in the state, we should be doing what we can to provide them with every resource they need. If that means doing additional paperwork, then we should be doing what we can to get them as many benefits.”
Esteves said he has noticed a trend among certain states of rejecting federal money “as a whole because of the burden that accepting that money may cause.”
“The problem with that is if we’re going to go solely on efficiencies, there are a lot of things that the state does that may not necessarily be an efficient way of using tax dollars that programs like this would help resolve,” Esteves said. “There’s a trend of Republican governors avoiding taking federal dollars partially to make a statement about their independence away from using federal funds, but also to make a statement that the programs that the federal government wants you to run are more inefficient than the programs the states are running. But if you are hearing from advocates in the state saying, ‘Hey, the program the state has is okay, but we can be doing a lot better with federal funding’...”
Esteves cited a recent case he read about where state officials told a woman they couldn’t help her with her rent which was due even though there was federal money available to do so. “A few months later, we [Georgia] took away her child for being in unsafe living conditions,” Esteves said.
“The reality is that their chances of winding up in jail or prison, where it will be exponentially more expensive to take care of them, is already high,” Esteves added. “We should be working on avoiding them going to jail.”
Esteves said he plans to broach the issue with the Senate Committee on Children & Families although, he said, “We’re pretty limited on what we can do as a committee. It's not like we can force the governor to have his administration accept some of this funding.
“There can be an urgent resolution that we could potentially take up but that's going to require the committee to agree to that,” Esteves said, noting that six of the 10 committee members are Republicans who may not agree. “And I have to have conversations with the chair [Kay Kirkpatrick] to make sure that not only that she's aware, but that she's concerned about it because if she isn’t concerned about it then the likelihood of anything happening in the committee is low.”
|AVG. PAID PER CHILD
|FY 2023 TOTAL
|FY 2024 YTD
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Bills to track illegal immigrants, oust squatters, boost film industry make the cut on Crossover Day
A controversial religious freedom bill cleared the Senate Thursday despite heavy criticism from some lawmakers who said the bill would open “the floodgates to discrimination” against the LGBTQ+ community.
Senate Bill 180 was among dozens of bills Thursday that will now face another round of discussions and debates in the opposite chamber. SB 180 now heads to the House.
It’s part of the Georgia legislature’s midsession ritual known as “Crossover Day,” the last chance for bills to pass at least one chamber in the General Assembly. A succession of bills underwent rapid-fire discussion, debate and votes throughout the day.
Here’s a look at some of the bills that have made it across on Leap Day and a few that emerged as wildcards.
What happened in the House
COURTS and PUBLIC SAFETY
- HB 1105, the “Georgia Criminal Alien Track and Report Act,” would require Georgia law enforcement to work with federal immigration officials in reporting and, in some cases, detaining suspected illegal immigrants who have been charged with crimes. Failure of sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies to comply with the law could result in the loss of state and federal funds, and misdemeanor charges.
- Rep. Jesse Petrea, R-Savannah, the lead sponsor, said the bill does not target all foreign nationals but focuses on those who commit crimes. The bill gained steam in the House this week following the death of nursing student Laken Riley in Athens allegedly at the hands of a Venezuelan immigrant who entered the country illegally. During a 1.5-hour debate, the bill was vehemently opposed by many Democrats, who said it would terrorize undocumented immigrants and unfairly defund the police.
- Rep. Sam Park, the House minority whip, said the bill “won’t promote public safety, but it will lead to discrimination against people of certain ethnic backgrounds.” Rep. Pedro “Pete” Marin, D-Duluth, said it’s “yet another attempt to politicize fear and hatred. It is tempting during an election cycle to target immigrants to score political points.” Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, said, “Fixing policy in the face of unspeakable tragedy is not politics.” The bill passed 97-74.
- HB 1017, also known as the “Squatter Reform Act,” makes it easier to remove an intruder from private property, charge squatters with criminal penalties and issue them fines. Sponsor Devan Seabaugh, R-Marietta, said, “There are no more free homes in Georgia. If you are currently in a home you don’t belong in, leave now.” It passed 167-0.
WORKFORCE and ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
- Several bills related to occupational licensing reform have moved through the House. HB 839 creates an interstate compact agreement to allow social workers and massage therapists licensed in Georgia or any of the several states in the compact to practice in those states without having to obtain a new license. HB 1190 requires professional licensing boards housed in the Secretary of State’s office to review and issue licenses to professionals who meet requirements within 60 days of application. If that doesn’t happen, the license must be issued by the office immediately after the 60-day point.
- After 12 years of trying, Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, persuaded his colleagues to pass HB 349, a bill to allow mobile barbering. Williams said the bill “lets Georgia move into the 21st century. Poodles have been able to get mobile service. You can buy food of any description, get a tooth pulled, get an x-ray, give blood on a mobile truck. And finally, Georgia, for those of you who still need it, you can get a haircut.” The bill passed 165-1.
- After passionate debate, lawmakers voted 131-34 to pass HB 1180, which makes changes to Georgia’s Film Tax Credit, providing tax breaks to the state’s $1.9 billion film industry. The bill limits the state’s total annual obligation on film tax credits to $900 million, keeps a minimum investment by film businesses at $500,000 to qualify for the credit, and adds some new incentives to earn a 10% higher credit amount, including filming outside of metro Atlanta and using Georgia musicians, crews, studios and postproduction houses.
- HB 1125 phases out payments below the minimum wage to people with disabilities. Rep. Sharon Cooper said some programs that hire the disabled have been operating “like sweatshops,” offering pay as low as 22 cents per hour. It passed 160-0.
- HB 583 allows cottage food industry businesses to sell their products via third-party vendors such as restaurants and grocery stores instead of just direct to consumers. Rep. Leesa Hagan, R-Lyons, said it allows people “to see if their business is viable before putting a lot of investment in a commercial kitchen.” The bill passed 166-1.
- HB 1146 allows the Environmental Protection Division to issue water permits to private companies in areas where no public water service can be provided. It was prompted by problems providing water to the massive Hyundai electric vehicle plant near Savannah and workforce housing under construction in the counties around it. Many lawmakers expressed concerns over allowing private companies to control access to water and what it will cost communities over time. The bill passed 105-58.
- HB 1341 makes wild Georgia white shrimp the state’s official crustacean. The bill passed 171-0.
- HR 780, which would put the question on the ballot to amend the Georgia Constitution to allow only U.S. citizens to vote in Georgia elections, received a vote of 98-61 and failed to pass because it didn’t receive a two-thirds majority vote required for a constitutional amendment.
- HB 1335, sponsored by Rep. John LaHood, R-Valdosta, sets up a medical emergency alert system and requires a minimal level of staffing in senior care facilities, including personal care homes, assisted living communities and memory care centers.
- The House passed HB 1410, which creates the Stable Housing Accountability Program, a voluntary program to help homeless people with addiction issues to secure stable housing while participating in programs that help them “get back on their feet, be gainfully employed and self-sufficient,” said Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Auburn. It will be funded by the State Housing Trust Fund for the Homeless and private sources.
- HB 1361, an unusual hybrid bill, creates the offense of criminal trespass for entering the cage of a wild animal and creates a criminal offense for distributing obscene material depicting a child using computer or artificial intelligence technology. It passed 164-1.
What happened in the Senate
- SB 395 authorizes schools to have opioid antagonists such as Narcan on hand so they’re readily available for teachers and others to treat fentanyl overdoses at school. Currently, only nurses can administer opioid antagonists, and sometimes schools are understaffed. The bill passed 54-0.
- After a lengthy debate, the controversial SB 390 — which prohibits the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and certain libraries from using taxpayer or privately donated money on any materials services or operations offered by the American Library Association — passed by substitute by a 33-20 vote.
- SB 198, which creates the Georgians With Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Innovation Commission, passed 50-2. It has five years to complete its work.
- There are 40,000 incidents of domestic violence each year. Senators passed SB 407, which would require documenting certain information in incidents of family violence. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, passed 52-1.
WORKFORCE and ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT
- SB 460, which revises the number of advanced practice registered nurses and physician assistants a doctor can supervise at any one time, passed 40-11. Sen. Bo Hatchett, R-Cornelia, said the bill will help rural hospitals “survive in the current medical climate.”
- SB 480, which would repay student loans for mental health and substance use professionals serving in certain capacities, passed 44-1.”
- SB 420, prohibiting foreign investors from buying agricultural land or land near military bases, passed 41-11 . The bill also would make it a felony for investors to purchase farmland if they have ties to any countries considered adversarial by the Department of Commerce.
- SB 180, known as the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” is intended to protect people’s religious rights from state and local government intervention, but critics say it will lead to greater problems for the gay community.
- SB 542 — which allows the public the right to use all navigable streams for passage on boats, including kayaks and canoes, and for hunting or fishing — passed 51-0. It does not allow for passersby to recreate on private property along such streams.
Other key bills that have already crossed over this session:
- HB 1339 changes Certificate of Need regulations and determines where and how new hospitals and medical facilities can be built.
- HB 881 provides standards of conduct and rules governing the Prosecuting Attorneys Qualifications Commission, which is empowered to oversee, discipline and remove state prosecutors.
- HB 1037 creates the Georgia Commission on Maternal and Infant Health.
- SB 465, also known as “Austin’s Law,” would charge anyone who illegally sells or distributes fentanyl that results in an overdose death with aggravated involuntary manslaughter, a felony.
- SB 421 is an anti-swatting measure that would make it a felony to make fake or unlawful calls or requests for emergency services.
- SR 155 creates the Senate Truck Driver Shortages Study Committee.
Why it matters
It’s a somewhat frenzied process, but the flurry of activity at the Capitol on Thursday sets the course for how lawmakers want to govern the state going forward. It’s a time when laws and policies are introduced or updated.
That said, it’s ultimately supposed to make the lives of Georgia’s 10 million-plus residents easier.
All of the bills that crossed over to the other chamber will be assigned to committees in the House or Senate. Lawmakers have until March 28, the last day of this legislative session, to consider, discuss, debate and vote on these bills.
This story has been updated to reflect the final legislative action on Crossover Day.
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As the General Assembly prepares to put its stamp on the fiscal year 2025 budget proposed by Gov. Brian Kemp, school transportation officials and education advocates are praising, some a bit warily, the governor’s large and long-awaited increase to student transportation funding.
Two decades of continuous disinvestment by the state in the cost of transporting students to and from school has left many school districts with aging bus fleets and insufficient funds to hire and retain bus drivers.
Following a series of State Affairs stories charting the plight of children stuck with poor transportation, Kemp proposed in late January doubling the state’s share of the student transportation budget in 2025 with an additional $210 million for busing operations and $20 million for 227 new buses.
“It’s huge, extremely huge,” said Pat Schofill, assistant superintendent of operations for Jackson County Schools, who was director of pupil transportation for the state Department of Education from 2016 to 2022.
“What these funds are going to do for a growing system like Jackson County is significant,” he said. “Where we’re now getting $1 million for pupil transportation, the state will provide maybe $2 million of our $11 million budget. This will allow us to invest in salaries for bus drivers and technicians, training initiatives and upgrades to buses like GPS technologies, seat belts and other safety features.”
Better yet, Schofill said, the extra state funds “will allow us and many other districts to offset some of our local funds on initiatives we’ve been trying to work on,” such as building new schools and hiring more teachers and mental health counselors.
“When we heard the numbers they were tossing around, we were excited,” said Jason Ayers, transportation director for Barrow County Schools. “But we know we have to wait and see what the actual allocation looks like.”
Still, Ayers and his team are already looking at hiring more staff and increasing pay for bus drivers and bus mechanics, who both start at about $16 an hour, hoping that more competitive salaries will help to fill some long-standing vacancies.
“The reason you don’t have anybody applying for transportation departments is because they can go other places and make more money,” he said. “Anything that moves the needle on helping us to compete with trucking companies and bigger school districts is a big deal.”
Ayers said about 60 buses in his fleet of 200 are 15 or more years old, the age when most buses are considered beyond their useful life. With new buses costing about $120,000 each, “you make that bus last as long as you can. But then there comes the point where it’s just so old it’s not even practical to fix it anymore. We’ve got a lot of ground to gain with upgrading our fleet. This new funding will allow us to invest in infrastructure and operations across the board.”
Richmond County school bus driver Yolanda Brown told State Affairs last year that buses are plagued with mechanical problems and regularly break down, causing students to arrive late to school. Some miss out on breakfast as well as their first-period classes.
Brown said the problems still exist and the district still has 40 vacancies among its 176 driver positions, and many drivers have to do double routes on crowded buses. “Frustrations are running high” among drivers, students and parents, she said.
But Brown, who is president of the Transport Workers Union Local 239 of the AFL-CIO in Augusta, said she’s cautiously optimistic about the influx of new funding the governor has proposed.
“It’s a good thing he’s doing,” she said. “I’m a little concerned about how the funds will reach the local level, but I think it will filter down.” She said the district’s chief financial officer and superintendent “are finally looking at revamping employee pay,” which for bus drivers starts at $14.06 an hour. “Hopefully that will slow down the constant turnover we have.”
Paul Abbott, senior director of transportation for Richmond County schools, is more positive about the future.
“It’s going to be a boon for us,” he said. “We don’t know the dollar amount yet and exactly what it will allow us to do, but we’re planning to give a nice bump on starting pay, which is what we’ve needed to get people in the door.”
Why it matters
Until the mid-1990s, the state, which by law is required to support the cost of transporting kids to public schools, covered about half of school districts’ total cost for student transportation. But over the years, Georgia’s investment has steadily dropped — amounting to about 17% of the total $1.1 billion cost in 2023.
This drop has put a strain on many school districts, which have had to cut other educational expenditures to keep bus operations going. And many districts have not been able to find enough funds to maintain bus fleets adequately and pay personnel a livable wage. Many career bus drivers and mechanics have quit or retired, and schools are finding them hard to replace.
Kemp’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget would cover about 31% of school districts’ total costs for transportation. And instead of a one-time grant, Kemp’s move to put transportation funds in the education formula funding part of the budget signals “that schools can count on this level of funding every single year,” said Stephen Owens, education director at the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute.
“This will do real good in schools, to have these funds baked into the budget,” Owens said. “If the General Assembly approves it … this will be a huge jump in formula funding that will allow school districts to plan on not only to replace school buses, pay bus drivers and bus monitors a better wage, and make sure that we have safer buses on the road, [but] … they can recommit the funds that they’ve been taking from other areas of school to support instruction in other ways.”
While “this is an incredible step forward,” Owens said, “if we treat this like the last thing we needed to do to support schools, in four years we’re going to be right back in this position where we have a similar amount of underfunding for school districts.” Owens estimated the total cost of student transportation for school districts increases about $200 million every four years.
“So this can’t be a one-and-done,” he said. “It needs to be a regular part of the way the General Assembly moves towards fairness between districts and the state. There’s still a wide gap until we get to true parity.”
House and Senate leaders have expressed strong support for Kemp’s proposed fiscal year 2025 budget, which includes $1.4 billion in new education spending. Besides the increase in student transportation, the education budget includes raises for teachers and new funding for school security measures and expanding pre-K programs.
Over the next month, budget writers in the House and then the Senate will review and propose changes to the 2025 budget. The changes must be approved in both chambers and then submitted to the governor by March 28, the last day of the legislative session. The governor will then sign or veto the bill. He can also choose to reject certain line items within the budget. Georgia’s fiscal year 2025 begins July 1, 2024.
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It’s do-or-die week at the Capitol as lawmakers race to get bills to the finish line if they’re to become law. Crossover Day, which happens this Thursday, is the last day a bill can clear its originating chamber and move to the other chamber for consideration. A bill introduced in the Senate must pass the …
Georgia student’s death spurs Gov. Kemp and lawmakers to push state solutions for ‘failed federal policies’ on immigration
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.
“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.
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