'People are scared': Hispanic community reacts to immigration debate after student's killing

ATHENS, Georgia — The national debate over immigration intensified last week after Donald Trump excoriated President Joe Biden, saying his border policies are to blame for the death of a 22-year-old nursing student who authorities allege was killed by an undocumented immigrant in Athens, Georgia.

Republicans up and down Georgia are also blaming Democratic policies and pushing for tough immigration laws that would make it more difficult to cross the border.

Now, Hispanic residents in Athens say they fear the fiery rhetoric will lead to backlash against the Hispanic and immigrant communities, leaving individuals at risk of violence or harsh local policies.

“People are scared,” said Maria, a clerk at a Mexican grocery store in Athens. Those interviewed asked that only their first or middle names be used because of their immigration status and fears of retaliation. “I can understand that because this terrible thing has turned to all of us immigrants. ... We’re not all the same. One bad man cannot change the face of all Hispanic people.”

Laken Riley, a former University of Georgia student, was reported missing by a roommate after she didn't return from a morning run last week. Police later found her dead in a wooded area on campus.

Authorities arrested Jose Antonio Ibarra, 26, in connection with her death on murder and assault charges. Federal authorities said he entered the U.S. illegally in 2022 and was arrested at least once before.

Trump's message linking immigrants to violent crime has been one of his signature platforms. From first announcing he would be running for president in 2015 − where he claimed Mexico sent "rapists" to the United States − Trump has used the same term to describe Mexican immigrants throughout his campaign and time in the White House.

Research suggests immigrants commit fewer crimes than people born in the U.S.

Republicans blame Biden's 'failed policies'

Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and former President Donald Trump have both placed blame for the tragedy on Biden, accusing his "failed policies" for allowing violent crime in the country.

"The American people know exactly what happened," Kemp told Fox News Tuesday. "This president ... did not (secure the border). ... Now we have a dead young woman because of it."

Biden and Trump both visited the border last week, clashing over policy for reforms. Biden called for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation that would introduce some of the toughest restrictions at the border in a generation.

"Both houses supported this legislation until someone came along and said, 'Don't do that, it will benefit the incumbent,'" Biden said, blaming Trump for the bill being stymied. "That's a hell of a way to do business in America for such a serious problem."

Trump, speaking in Eagle Pass, Texas, Thursday, referred to "Biden migrant crime" when discussing Riley's death. He blamed Biden for allowing millions of people to come into the U.S. from other countries and asserted that migrants are dangerous and "coming from prisons."

The immigration debate spurred by Riley's killing has led one Georgia bill, first introduced earlier this year, to gain momentum in the state legislature. The legislation would restrict funding for Georgia law enforcement agencies that fail to aid federal immigration authorities, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It would also require every eligible police and sheriff's department to help identify undocumented immigrants, arrest them and detain them for deportation.

Georgia House Republicans passed it Thursday.

Samuel Thomas, an immigration attorney in Athens said the bill allows the state to crack down on any sheriff's department or local law enforcement agency that does not cooperate with ICE.

"I believe that they (immigrants) are sharing some anxiety right now given the fact that what Georgia is trying to do with their new bill is crackdown on any kind of arrest to try to get the status of the person you're putting under arrest," he said.

Jean-Luc Rivera, deputy executive director of the Latino Community Fund Georgia, an organization supporting Latinx and Hispanic communities in the state, spent Thursday at the Capitol in Atlanta to lobby state legislators to vote against the bill. He claims the legislation is spreading fear and creating a "pressure cooker environment" among the immigrant and Hispanic communities.

"Essentially, people will have to carry their passport at all times if you think you could be suspected of being a foreign national," Rivera said. "It really opens the doors for a lot of scary legislation."

'I think it's going to get bad'

Rosa, a Mexican national who is in the country undocumented, fears the intense political pressure may lead local officials to reinstate a procedure to hold people in the country illegally for 48-hours so ICE can pick them up. If the policy changed, she said she’d be constantly under the threat of deportation, which she hasn’t felt since she arrived in Athens 11 years ago with her family.

The mother of three, who can’t get a license, currently only drives when she can’t get a ride to the specialty market where she works. But she says the change in policy would make her stop taking the risk.

“I think it’s going to get bad,” she said. “There’s always been a risk for immigrants but with all this … I don’t know where it’s going to take us.”

Balancing part-time jobs with responsibilities at home, Juan, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, said he has little time for worry. But that changed when his wife asked him this week if there were other places in the U.S. where he’d consider living.

It was the first time she’d mentioned anything about moving their family of four out of Athens, where they’ve been for six years and have comfortably settled.

“It will take a lot to make us leave here,” he said. “(but) if people get angry and Athens is not safe for my family, what else can we do?”

A crowd of people gather to mourn the loss of Laken Riley during a vigil for the Augusta University College of Nursing student at the Tate Plaza on the University of Georgia campus in Athens Feb. 26, 2024.
A crowd of people gather to mourn the loss of Laken Riley during a vigil for the Augusta University College of Nursing student at the Tate Plaza on the University of Georgia campus in Athens Feb. 26, 2024.

'Used as a political chip'

The Hispanic Student Association at the University of Georgia, where Riley was a former student, said in a statement on Instagram that the group has received hatred and bigotry following Riley's death.

"The hurtful and discriminatory comments made following the tragic loss of one of our own have deeply shaken us all," the statement reads.

Rivera's organization, the Latino Community Fund Georgia, also denounced hateful comments members of the Hispanic community are receiving, saying in a statement that certain characteristics should not be used to make generalizations or accusations about large groups of people.

"We firmly reject any comments, or statements that imply immigrants and or Latinos are dangerous or a problem to our communities," the group says.

Rivera said he was first shocked when he heard about Riley's killing.

"But then things started to take a turn and you could see that this was going to be used as a political chip as well," he said. "That's when I started to get very concerned about how this would affect the immigrant community in Georgia."

Rivera said he thinks the politicization of Riley's murder detracts from the main issues − like violence against women − and leads to retaliatory legislation against immigrants, race baiting and more divisive tactics.

Protesters call for Athens mayor to resign

Tensions boiled over at a news conference this week, where Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz was interrupted by protesters calling for his resignation. Some yelled out "liar" as he was speaking while others held signs reading "BLOOD ON YOUR HANDS" and "#MakeAthensSafeAgain."

The protesters repeatedly referred to a resolution signed by Girtz in August 2019 that denounced white supremacy and declared it necessary that “all people, including those without documentation, feel welcome and comfortable interacting with local law enforcement” and “their government.”

“The Athens-Clarke County Unified Government is welcoming to people from all lands and backgrounds and strives to foster a community where individuals and families of all statuses feel safe, are able to prosper, and can breathe free,” according to the resolution.

Girtz said his government has not adopted any policies that make Athens a “sanctuary city,” a general term used to describe local governments that limit cooperation with federal agencies enforcing immigration laws.

The Georgia state legislature banned sanctuary city policy in 2009 and, since 2016, has required local governments to submit a document each year certifying that it has no policies in place that prevent employees from notifying federal officials of a person’s immigration status, according to the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. Girtz told reporters his office has always complied with state law.

In 2018, the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail in Athens, revised its policy requiring jail personnel to hold arrested immigrants for 48 hours and notify Immigrant and Customs Enforcement.

For about the last six years, the sheriff’s office only holds undocumented immigrants in the jail and notifies federal authorities if there’s a warrant out for their arrest, according to a copy of the policy provided by the sheriff’s office to USA TODAY. The sheriff’s office maintains in the policy that it cannot “detain people solely on the basis of being an undocumented alien.”

Deborah Gonzalez, the Western Circuit District Attorney, who is running for reelection, said in her day-one memo that her office will “take into account collateral consequences to undocumented defendants” when making charging decisions.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Hispanics fear for safety after killing flames immigration debate