A young woman’s killing in Georgia stokes a familiar rightwing war

<span>People mourn the death of Laken Riley at the University of Georgia, Athens, on 26 February 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Joshua L Jones/AP</span>
People mourn the death of Laken Riley at the University of Georgia, Athens, on 26 February 2024.Photograph: Joshua L Jones/AP
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All murders are not treated equally.

The killing of the 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley on the campus of the University of Georgia on 22 February has drawn national media interest and political activity in ways that other homicide cases do not, in part because it provides an easy target for rightwing election sloganeering.

Related: Judge blocks Texas law allowing police to arrest people suspected of illegally entering US

Homicide rates fell by historic amounts last year after a spike in violence during the pandemic. Early estimates suggest that across the country violence has returned to near-60-year lows.

Despite the data, most Americans believe violence is increasing because violence increasingly drives media attention. And the murder of any young woman by a stranger is bound to draw additional news coverage simply because these killings are rare. FBI statistics show 3,653 women were murdered in 2022 – comprising fewer than one in four victims – and according to data tracked by the Violence Policy Center, about 92% of women who are murdered know their attacker. The murder of Laken Riley by a stranger is statistically one in a million.

Where Riley died adds to the attention.

The campus of the University of Georgia holds particular social and political significance among Georgians. A murder on campus is, for many, a desecration of hallowed ground. UGA is a dominant force in Georgia sports culture. Three out of four college students in Georgia attend a state school, and the flagship university is a top goal for almost all of them. About a quarter of state legislators are University of Georgia alumni, as are five of Georgia’s 14 Congress members and Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp.

But the main reason we know Riley’s name, and not the names of the other 300-350 women killed by a stranger in the last year, or the names of the other eight people being held on a murder charge at the Clarke county jail, is because the suspect – 26-year-old Jose Ibarra – is an undocumented migrant who has been previously charged with a crime without being deported, and the victim is young, female and white. Of such things are press conferences born.

“It is an understatement to say that this is a major crisis,” Kemp said on Monday morning during a news conference, attacking the Biden administration on its immigration enforcement policies. “Because of the White House’s failures, every state is now a border state. Laken Riley’s murder is just the latest proof of that.”

Georgia’s state penitentiaries hold about 50,000 prisoners, and according to the Georgia department of corrections, about 1,600 prisoners had ICE detention orders at the end of January, up by about 100 since the start of Biden’s term as a result of increased enforcement activity. Of all Georgia’s prisoners, about 9,100 have been imprisoned for killing someone – murder, manslaughter or other homicides. Of the 7,050 murderers, 182 are subject to deportation.

Estimates from the Pew Research Center suggest that Georgia’s undocumented population fell between 2011 and 2021 by more than 10%, to about 350,000, or about 3.2% of Georgia’s residents. Immigrants – legal and illegal – are less likely to be charged with an act of violence than the native-born US population.

“There’s a long and unfortunate history of politicizing immigrants and suggesting that they commit crimes at higher rates,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, director of communications and public affairs for the Migration Policy Institute, and a UGA alumna. “As we’ve seen in US context … they see anecdotal reporting of individual, sad tragedies that they somehow extrapolate that this, therefore, means that a whole class of people are more likely to commit crime.”

The media amplification of stories about an innocent female victim killed by a person of color is a historical trope in southern politics that harkens back to Reconstruction-era politics. Conservatives have made immigration central to their political messaging today, often disregarding the ugly history of this commentary when a case like the Riley murder presents itself.

Enter Donald Trump.

“Crooked Joe Biden’s Border INVASION is destroying our country and killing our citizens!” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “The horrible murder of 22-year-old Laken Riley at the University of Georgia should have NEVER happened! The monster who took her life illegally entered our Country in 2022 … and then was released AGAIN by Radical Democrats in New York after injuring a CHILD!!”

Trump has habitually amplified murder cases when the victim is an American citizen and the accused is not. Laken Riley’s death has provided him another opportunity.

In 2016, the Trump campaign rallied around the prosecution of Jose Ines Garcia-Zarate, who was charged with fatally shooting Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. Garcia-Zarate, a homeless undocumented migrant who had been repeatedly deported, was ultimately acquitted of murder in 2017 and subsequently pleaded guilty to a weapon possession charge.

Legislators have begun agitating for changes to Georgia law in response to the Riley case.

“There are certainly also questions surrounding the administration of justice at the local level, and house leadership will be pressing for answers over the coming days as to why exactly the suspect and his brother continued to roam freely in the Athens area,” wrote the Georgia House speaker, Jon Burns, the day after Ibarra’s arrest. Three bills are advancing quickly through the legislative process, one mandating that police and sheriff’s departments help identify, arrest and detain undocumented immigrants for deportation.

The high-profile death in Athens, Georgia, intensified the spotlight on the county’s district attorney, Deborah Gonzalez, long a target for conservative lawmakers for progressive policies. Gonzalez has called for a special prosecutor for Ibarra’s case, and declared she would not pursue the death penalty.

Congressman Mike Collins, who represents Athens in Congress, sent a letter to Athens’ mayor, Kelly Girtz, and the Clarke county sheriff, John Q Williams, yesterday demanding they end “sanctuary” policies for undocumented migrants. Collins cited the sheriff’s policy of refusing to comply with immigration detainers for 48-hour holds, and an Athens-Clarke county resolution “to foster a community where individuals and families of all statuses feel safe, are able to prosper, and can breathe free”.

Georgia state law expressly forbids Georgia cities from adopting “sanctuary city” policies of noncompliance with federal immigration policies, but Collins suggested in the letter that Athens had become one “in word and deed”, citing the Center for Immigrations Studies’ listing the county as a sanctuary city.

The Center for Immigration Studies was founded by the avowed white supremacist John Tanton and is itself listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Leaders among Georgia’s immigrant-oriented organizations met on Wednesday to formulate a response to the politicization of the Riley murder. “I have a 21-year-old daughter that goes to college in Nashville, you know, and I worry about her constantly. And so my first reaction was as a father, as a human being – it was heartbreaking, you know, devastating,” said Santiago Marquez, CEO of the Latin American Association in Georgia.

“My second reaction was one of great disappointment, because, you know, I just couldn’t anticipate what was going to come and … you know, there will be a lot of backlash in our community.”