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

Rachel Looker

Christopher Cann

March 3, 2024

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.” 3/6

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.”

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