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Slaying of Georgia student becomes part of U.S. immigration debate

The killing of a Georgia nursing student allegedly by a Venezuelan migrant has quickly intensified the country’s immigration debate as President Biden and leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump prepare trips to the border this week.

The body of 22-year-old Laken Hope Riley was found in the woods near a jogging trail Thursday on the University of Georgia campus, and her death is one of several cases in recent years that Republican politicians have highlighted to depict migrants as dangerous.

On average, immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born U.S. citizens, data show, but Republican leaders have been galvanized by record numbers of illegal border crossings since Biden took office in 2021.

“It’s just outrageous,” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, told Fox News on Monday. “People are so frustrated. And this is something that we’ve been talking about for years now, about the porous southern border.”

Riley, a nursing student at Augusta University who previously attended the University of Georgia, had gone out for exercise Thursday morning, according to campus police. A friend reported Riley missing hours later when she did not return.

Officers searched a forested area of the campus near a lake and found Riley with “visible injuries” from an apparent attack.

The next day, campus police arrested Venezuelan citizen Jose Ibarra, 26, and authorities charged him with homicide. U.S. government records show Ibarra arrived in the United States in September 2022 after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally near El Paso.

The slaying catapulted a shaken and grieving college campus into the national political spotlight, reviving a familiar campaign theme for Trump, who is widely expected to face off against Biden in the November election.

Trump on Monday called Ibarra a “monster” on social media and vowed to immediately “seal the border” if elected president. He has repeatedly highlighted crimes committed by immigrants and appeared with the grieving relatives of victims at rallies and news conferences.

The White House extended condolences Monday to Riley’s family. “People should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law if they are found to be guilty,” said Angelo Fernández Hernández, a White House spokesperson, in a statement.

Trump has often recalled sensational crimes, such as the 2015 shooting death of a California woman, Kate Steinle, by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times, to justify building a border wall and deporting immigrants. The man accused of shooting her was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges after a 2017 trial in which his defenders argued it was an accident.

Americans’ concern about the negative impact of illegal immigration is higher under Biden than the previous two administrations, according to a Monmouth University poll of 902 U.S. adults released Monday. More than 8 in 10 survey respondents said illegal immigration is either a very serious or somewhat serious problem, the poll found.

Concern about illegal immigration has increased among all partisan groups, the survey found, and a majority of Americans support building a border wall for the first time since Monmouth started asked the question in 2015.

Ibarra’s arrest has revived controversy over the “sanctuary” policies of U.S. jurisdictions that limited cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to shield undocumented residents from possible deportation.

According to ICE, Ibarra was arrested by the New York Police Department on Aug. 31 and charged with a motor vehicle violation and reckless endangerment. Ibarra was released before federal immigration authorities could ask city police to hold him, ICE said in a statement Monday.

Police officials in New York disputed that account Monday. The New York Police Department said it had no record of an arrest for Ibarra in 2023. The Queens County District Attorney’s office said it did not have a record of the case in its files.

It was unclear from court records if Ibarra has an attorney.

Biden is scheduled to visit the border town of Brownsville, Tex., on Thursday to emphasize his support for a bipartisan bill that would boost funding for immigration enforcement and tighten restrictions on asylum eligibility. The bill stalled after Trump said he opposed it.

Trump is also planning a border event Thursday, in the town of Eagle Pass, Tex., where Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has seized a public park along the Rio Grande and lined the riverbanks with razor wire and National Guard troops.

The rhetoric and claims of “invasion” that Trump and others espouse have inspired hate crimes, and migrant advocates say immigrants are wrongly scapegoated. In 2018, months after an undocumented immigrant from Mexico killed college student Mollie Tibbetts while she was out for a run in Iowa, her grieving father wrote an opinion column condemning attacks on immigrants.

“I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome,” her father, Rob Tibbetts, wrote in an opinion column in the Des Moines Register. “But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”

Charis Kubrin, a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine, said blaming immigrants isn’t a solution for deterring crime.

“If we want to use that kind of logic, then we should ban men from existing in the United States because they are responsible for the vast majority of crime,” she said. “The reality is if we actually care about lowering crime then we need to identify what are the real causes.”

Violence against women, for instance, occurs broadly in the United States, she said, and restrictive border policies such as expanding the border wall are unlikely to significantly reduce it. But greater safety measures for women might.

“This isn’t about immigration. It’s about misogyny and patriarchy and all that,” she said. “That’s a harder pill for people to swallow.”

Kubrin said she and a co-author reviewed all available studies and data on the issue for a 2023 book, “Immigration and Crime: Taking Stock,” and concluded that immigrants had no impact on crime rates. On average, she said, immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born residents.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors increased immigration enforcement, said she is skeptical of reports that show immigrants are less likely to commit crimes because local police generally don’t track that.

But she said increased immigration enforcement is a way to lower crime, in part by cracking down on transnational gangs and drug trafficking that often travel with much larger groups of migrants arriving in the United States.

Since Biden took office, Border Patrol has averaged about 2 million arrests a year, and many have been released into the United States to await an immigration court hearing. Under the Trump administration, she said, migrants were more often returned to Mexico or deported, which discouraged others from attempting to cross.

“Any crime committed by someone who’s here illegally, especially a horrific one like a murder, is one too many, because these are people who should not be here to begin with,” Vaughan said. “The important question is how do we build a system that ensures that small fraction of the immigrant population that is committing crimes is dealt with and removed?”

“We have enough American criminals,” she said.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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