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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Arrest of migrant in Georgia killing turns city into latest battleground on immigration



Mourners attend a vigil for Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student found dead on a trail at the university, on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., Feb. 26, 2024. Anger over immigration policy has been added to the grief on campus after a migrant from Venezuela was charged with kidnapping and murdering Riley. (Melissa Golden/The New York Times)

By Richard Fausset and Alessandro Marazi Sassoon


When a 22-year-old nursing student was found dead on a wooded trail at the University of Georgia in what’s believed to be the first homicide on campus in nearly 30 years, it set off waves of grief and fear that shook the university to its core.


But when a 26-year-old migrant from Venezuela was charged Friday with kidnapping and killing the student, Laken Riley, it did something else: It transformed Athens and Clarke County, a community of about 130,000 people some 70 miles east of Atlanta, into the latest flashpoint in the political fight over U.S. immigration policy.


In a social media post Monday, former President Donald Trump called the suspect, Jose Antonio Ibarra, a “monster,” and blamed President Joe Biden for an “invasion” that is “killing our citizens.” Earlier in the day, at an event at the university, Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia decried “an unwillingness by this White House to secure the southern border.”


A third Republican, Rep. Mike Collins, who represents Athens, wrote on social media: “The blood of Laken Riley is on the hands of Joe Biden, Alejandro Mayorkas and the government of Athens-Clarke County,” referring to the unified city-county government.


Such statements have struck many liberals as demagogic rhetoric piled atop a horrific crime. In an interview Sunday, Kelly Girtz, the Democratic mayor of Athens-Clarke County, said the conversation should be focused on mourning the victim, and blaming an individual rather than a group.


“This murder was a violent, heinous act,” he said, “and it rests squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.”


The relatively liberal culture of Athens, its local immigration policies and the border crisis have combined with a brutal crime to create a toxic brew at Georgia’s flagship university, where student politics runs the gamut.


Outside the student center, Ella Jackson, 19, a freshman from Milton, Georgia, said she did not feel unsafe or worried. But she took issue with the local government’s policy on immigrants living in the country illegally. “I don’t really think it’s our job to house the illegal immigrants, and especially so close to a college campus.”


In recent years, the city of Athens has seen a rise in local left-leaning politicians, Girtz among them, who have brought a new focus to questions of social justice and righting what they see as lingering Deep South wrongs. They have not been shy about their embrace of immigrants who are in the country illegally and a Hispanic community whose numbers have increased drastically in and around Athens in the past 30 years.


At the same time, Athens remains a kind of sacred space for Georgia conservatives. The enormous university, set in the middle of town, has educated many of Georgia’s most powerful Republicans, including Kemp, an Athens native. And the school’s winning football team, as well as the tailgating and adulation that it engenders, are core Georgia traditions that Kemp and others conspicuously weave into a conservative tapestry of culture and policy.


Kemp, a former Athens homebuilder and developer, won his first governor’s race in 2018 with an audacious ad in which he declared, “I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.” This month, he pledged to send Georgia National Guard troops to the U.S. border with Mexico.


Girtz was first elected in 2006 to the commission that governs the unified city-county government. He said Athens’ more activist band of politicians and their supporters grew, to some extent, out of the new wave and post-punk music scene that famously sprouted in Athens in the early 1980s, giving the world R.E.M. and the B-52s.


On Sunday morning, at a coffee shop near campus, the mayor, in an olive military jacket and a ball cap, dismissed the idea that he was responsible for the killing. He said Collins, who accused him of having blood on his hands, harbored “a kind of cartoon narrative around how the universe operates.”


Along with addressing matters of race and class that had long separated many of Athens’ Black and white residents, the new liberal lawmakers hewed to a defiantly anti-Trump stance on immigrants, many of whom came to Athens to work at poultry plants or arrived during the building boom of the early 2000s.


In 2018, the local sheriff at the time, Ira Edwards, under pressure from Girtz and others, ended the practice of holding arrested immigrants in jail for 48-hour periods to give federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials an opportunity to pick them up for potential deportation.


And in 2020, voters elected a liberal district attorney, Deborah Gonzalez, who pledged to “take into account collateral consequences to undocumented defendants” in making charging decisions.


Conservatives were appalled by all of it — and remain so.


On Monday, state Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican, noted that Ibarra, the suspect in the University of Georgia killing, was issued a criminal citation for shoplifting at a Walmart in Athens in October, according to court records. Records show that a bench warrant was issued, meaning that he likely skipped a court date.


There exists “an atmosphere of Athens being a place welcoming to people who, frankly, shouldn’t be in the United States,” Gaines said.


Ibarra was arrested by U.S. Border Patrol for crossing the border illegally in September 2022 and was released quickly with temporary permission to stay in the country, authorities said.


That release, or parole, was a practice that the Biden administration used when officials were overwhelmed with high numbers of crossings. It ended that practice about six months later.


In August, Ibarra was arrested in New York City on charges of child endangerment and violation of a driver’s license law, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He eventually moved to Athens and was living in an apartment within walking distance of the crime scene.


Gaines said this week that he and other Republicans would try in the coming days to push bills to tighten up policies around immigrants lacking permanent legal status.


At a trailer park north of town, Jose Tapía, 50, a construction worker from Mexico and a legal U.S. resident, said he expected things to get tougher for his neighbors who are immigrants. “I think there’s going to be more tension,” he said. “I’m sure the police are going to be more strict.”

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