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

ATHENS, Ga. — Laken Riley was a 22-year-old nursing student who was on a morning run at the University of Georgia when authorities said a stranger dragged her to a remote area and killed her, sending shockwaves through the campus as the police were looking for a suspect.

The arrest of a Venezuelan man who entered the US 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 fatal beating of the Augusta University student. A conservative news site blasted “open-border elites” for accepting the deaths of women like Riley as “collateral damage.”

It’s familiar territory for Trump, who launched his bid for the White House in 2016 by saying Mexicans “brought crime.” They’re rapists. And some, I suppose, 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 country’s broken immigration system has emerged as a key campaign issue amid an unprecedented wave of migration that has strained budgets in cities such as New York, Chicago and Denver and divided some Democrats. Trump has stepped up his anti-immigrant rhetoric, saying migrants are “poisoning the blood” of the country. And he and other Republicans have suggested that migrants are more likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens, even though the evidence does not support those claims.

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

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

Democrats are more reserved, with many expressing sadness over Riley’s death and some accusing Trump of exploiting a tragedy and using xenophobic rhetoric for political gain.

The White House expressed its “deepest condolences” to Riley’s family. “People must be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law if found guilty,” said spokesman Angelo Fernández Hernández.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump ally, predicted that Riley’s death “will change this election as much as anything.”

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

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

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

A study published last year by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private group, found that immigrants have been less likely to be incarcerated than U.S.-born white men since 1960.

“While Democrats are increasingly 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 talking about immigrants,” said Ran Abramitzky, an economics professor at Stanford University and links between immigration and crime, citing analyzes of congressional testimony dating back decades.

Jon Feere, a former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official in the Trump administration and now research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, dismissed the study. He pointed to migrants who do not have legal permission to stay in the US, saying they are committing crimes just by being here.

“These types of consequences will continue for many years, even after this administration,” Feere said. “And they can continue to ignore it, but the American people are paying attention.”

Victims’ families have heartbreaking stories.

Don Rosenberg, a retired entertainment and publishing executive, lost his 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 to families whose loved ones had been killed by immigrants, he concluded that authorities ignored them and even protected the 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 in September 2022 for illegal entry near El Paso, Texas, amid an unprecedented wave of migration, and released to present his case to the immigration court. At the time, the Border Patrol released migrants with orders to appear at an immigration office, without even scheduling a court appearance. This practice, which added years to the time it takes to resolve an immigration case, largely came to an end in February 2023.

It is unclear whether 26-year-old Ibarra followed these instructions or applied for asylum. Federal officials say he was arrested by New York police in August for child endangerment and released, although 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 did not respond to requests for comment.

Trump first mentioned the killing on Friday, calling it part of what he has called a “Biden migrant crime.” It comes after a group of migrants clashing with police in New York sparked 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 illegally killed by people in the country, including Kate Steinle, who was shot on a busy San Francisco pier in 2015. “Their deaths were all 100% preventable,” the site said. said.


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