The killing of a Georgia nursing student is now at the center of the US immigration debate

Feb 27, 2024, 12:52 PM

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Laken Riley was a 22-year-old nursing student out on her morning run at the University of Georgia when authorities say a stranger dragged her into a secluded area and killed her, sending shockwaves through campus as police searched for a suspect.

The arrest of a Venezuelan man who entered the U.S. illegally and was allowed to stay to pursue his immigration case put the tragedy at the center of the 2024 presidential campaign.

Former President Donald Trump blamed President Joe Biden and his border policies for the Augusta University student’s fatal beating. A conservative news site blasted “open-border elites” for accepting the deaths of women such as Riley as “collateral damage.”

It is familiar ground for Trump, who launched his 2016 White House bid by saying Mexicans were “bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” As president, he created an office for families whose loved ones were victims of violent crimes committed by immigrants, which was quickly dismantled under Biden.

The debate over the nation’s broken immigration system has emerged as a major campaign issue amid an unprecedented migration surge that has strained budgets in cities including New York, Chicago and Denver and divided some Democrats. Trump has dialed up his anti-immigrant rhetoric to say migrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country. And he and other Republicans have suggested migrants are committing crimes more often than U.S. citizens even though the evidence does not back up those claims.

Biden has criticized Republicans for turning against a bipartisan border security deal after Trump decried it. He will visit the Texas border city of Brownsville on Thursday, while Trump will be in another Texas border city, Eagle Pass.

On his social media site, Trump on Monday potsted, “Crooked Joe Biden’s Border INVASION is destroying our country and killing our citizens! The horrible murder of 22-year-old Laken Riley at the University of Georgia should have NEVER happened!”

Democrats have been more muted, with many expressing sorrow for Riley’s death and some accusing Trump of exploiting a tragedy and using xenophobic rhetoric for political gain.

The White House extended “deepest condolences” to Riley’s family. “People should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law if they are found to be guilty,” said spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, predicted Riley’s death is ”gonna change this election as much as anything.”

“That’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” the South Carolina Republican said.

Many studies have found immigrants are less drawn to violent crime than native-born citizens. One published by the National Academy of Sciences, based on Texas Department of Public Safety data from 2012 to 2018, reported native-born U.S. residents were more than twice as likely to be arrested for violent crimes than people in the country illegally.

Another in the journal Criminology analyzed multiple data sources from 1990 to 2014 to conclude that increases in illegal immigration were generally in sync with reductions in violent crime or had no significant correlation.

A study published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private group, found immigrants have been incarcerated at a lower rate than U.S.-born white men since 1960.

“Whereas Democrats are increasingly more positive when talking about immigrants and pointing to their contributions to the U.S., Republicans remain negative and increasingly focus on crime and legality issues when they talk about immigrants,” said Ran Abramitzky, a Stanford University economics professor who has studied links between immigration and crime, referring to analyses of congressional statements going back decades.

Jon Feere, a former U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement official in the Trump administration who now is director of investigations at the Center for Immigration Studies, dismissed the research. He pointed to migrants who don’t have legal permission to be in the U.S., saying they are committing crimes just by being here.

“This type of fallout’s going to going to continue for many years to come, even beyond this administration,” Feere said. “And they can continue to ignore it, but the American people are paying attention.”

Families of victims have heartbreaking stories.

Don Rosenberg, a retired entertainment and publishing executive, lost his son, 25-year-old son, Drew, in 2010, when a Honduran man who was in the country illegally repeatedly struck him with his car in San Francisco and tried to flee. As he spoke with families whose loved ones were killed by immigrants, he concluded authorities were ignoring them, even protecting perpetrators.

“I thought my case was an anomaly. No, my case was the rule,” said Rosenberg, president of Advocates for Victims of Illegal Alien Crime.

Rosenberg says the high-profile cases won’t resonate with voters until news organizations give them more exposure “because Trump only talks to people who support Trump.”

The man accused of killing Riley, Jose Ibarra, was arrested for illegal entry in September 2022 near El Paso, Texas, amid an unprecedented surge in migration and released to pursue his case in immigration court. At the time, the Border Patrol was releasing migrants with orders to appear at an immigration office, not even scheduling court appearances. That practice, which added years to how long it takes to resolve an immigration case, largely ceased in February 2023.

It is unclear if Ibarra, 26, followed those instructions or applied for asylum. Federal officials say he was arrested by New York police in August for child endangerment and released, though New York officials said Sunday they had no record of the arrest.

Iberra was living in Athens, Georgia, when Riley was killed last week. His attorney has not responded to requests for comment.

Trump first mentioned the killing on Friday, calling it part of what he has labeled “Biden migrant crime.” It comes after a group of migrants brawling with police in New York touched off a political furor and renewed debate over policies that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

The influential conservative site Breitbart News linked Riley’s death to other women who were killed by people in the country illegally, including Kate Steinle, who was shot at a crowded San Francisco pier in 2015. “Their deaths were all 100% preventable,” the site said.


Spagat reported from San Diego and Weissert from Washington. Jill Colvin contributed from Columbia, S.C.

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The killing of a Georgia nursing student is now at the center of the US immigration debate