Georgia Republicans seek new laws to crack down on immigrants after nursing student killed

Feb 26, 2024, 11:01 PM | Updated: Feb 27, 2024, 7:04 pm

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia House Republicans are pushing to require every eligible police and sheriff’s department to help identify undocumented immigrants, arrest them and detain them for deportation.

The proposal advanced through the state House Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday, going to the full House for more debate, after police accused a Venezuelan man of beating a nursing student to death on the University of Georgia campus.

Jose Ibarra was arrested Friday on murder and assault charges in the Thursday death of 22-year-old Laken Riley. Ibarra, 26, is a Venezuelan citizen who immigration authorities say unlawfully crossed into the United States in 2022. It’s unclear whether he has applied for asylum.

Riley was a nursing student at Augusta University’s Athens campus, after starting her college career at the Athens campus of the University of Georgia. She was found dead Thursday after a roommate reported she didn’t return from a morning run in a wooded area.

Also Tuesday, the University of Georgia said it would spend $7.3 million to bolster campus security, and Republicans in the U.S. House demanded information about Ibarra from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The law would move Georgia closer to states with more aggressive immigration laws like Texas, which starting in March will allow police to arrest migrants who enter the state illegally and give local judges the authority to order them out of the country

Georgia itself passed a prior harsh law cracking down on immigration in 2011, although it later backed away from parts of it. That measure let officers stop anyone deemed “suspicious” to check documents, required governments and large businesses to use a federal database called E-Verify to check the immigration status of new hires, required applicants for public benefits to prove citizenship, and created a board to punish local governments that didn’t crack down.

The bill the Georgia committee approved Tuesday would also set new requirements for how jail officials should check with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine whether people are known to be in the country illegally.

“This issue right now is my community’s most important issue, certainly, as we faced unspeakable tragedy in Athens over the last several days,” said Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines of Athens.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center in July counted six of 159 Georgia counties with 287(g) agreements with ICE. Five of those are only in jails. Oconee County, an Athens suburb, serves warrants for immigration violations and deportation orders. State agencies also cooperate with ICE.

At least three Georgia counties dropped jail-based cooperation with ICE, according to the center, including two big suburban Atlanta counties where it was major campaign issue — Gwinnett County and Cobb County.

Isabel Otero, Georgia policy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the bill’s backers are “dead set on forcing localities to do immigration enforcement,” even if police and sheriff’s departments don’t have the capacity.

“Unfortunately, folks have capitalized on the death of a young woman for political points in a way that’s really disheartening,” Otero said.

Republican state Rep. Jesse Petrea of Savannah said the bill is needed to enforce existing law requiring sheriffs to check with ICE on people who don’t appear to be American citizens.

“Maybe half of our sheriff’s are following that law,” Petrea said. “That is unfortunate, and that’s what we’re trying to address here.”

Sheriffs deny they are disregarding the law, said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. He said even Athens-Clarke County, which Republicans identify as a “sanctuary” jurisdiction for undocumented immigrants, is complying.

Petrea’s bill would state sheriffs that don’t check immigration status are guilty of the crime of violating their oath of office. The bill would also deny state funding to jails and sheriffs that don’t cooperate.

The legislation states inmates couldn’t be held for longer than 48 hours on an immigration detainer without a warrant signed by a federal judge, but later states sheriffs and jailers must comply with all ICE detainer requests.

Gaines is pushing a second bill, House Bill 1359, which would let people seek property tax refunds if cities or counties refused to communicate with immigration authorities. The refunds would also apply if a local government refused to enforce vagrancy laws against homeless people.

The University of Georgia said it would boost its police budget by 20% to add more officers and increase pay. The university said the additional safety personnel would patrol areas where students gather at night, including 24-hour coverage in libraries. It also said a subsidized ride-hailing system will run from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., up from four hours nightly.

The university said it would install a system of combined security cameras and blue-light emergency call boxes. The university earlier removed emergency call boxes, saying they were little used by cellphone-toting students. It also plans more lights at crosswalks, license-plate readers, and more fences.

The university said the package will cost $7.3 million, including $5.5 million in one-time investments and $1.8 million in ongoing expenses.

In Washington, Republican chairs of multiple House committees sent separate letters to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Majorkas demanding information on how ICE handled Ibarra’s case.

Newly filed arrest affidavits say Ibarra used an object as a weapon in the crime and is accused of “disfiguring” Riley’s skull. Police say Ibarra dragged the 22-year-old to a secluded area Thursday, according to affidavits obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

Authorities haven’t said exactly how Riley was killed, only that her death was caused by blunt force trauma.

District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez, who oversees prosecutions in Athens-Clarke County, said Monday that she is appointing a special prosecutor to prosecute Ibarra. Gonzalez, up for reelection this year, has been under fire as ineffective, losing several cases and seeing a number of assistant district attorneys depart her office.

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Georgia Republicans seek new laws to crack down on immigrants after nursing student killed