Arrest of migrant implicated in Georgia murder turns city into latest immigration battleground


When a 22-year-old nursing student was found dead on a wooded trail at the University of Georgia in what is believed to be the first homicide on campus in nearly 30 years, it unleashed waves of grief and fear that shook the university. to its foundations. center.

But when a 26-year-old Venezuelan migrant was charged Friday with kidnapping and murdering student Laken Riley, he did something else: He transformed Athens and Clarke County, a community of about 130,000 people about 70 miles east of Atlanta. in the latest flashpoint in the political fight over American immigration policy.

In a social media post Monday, former President Donald J. Trump called the suspect, José Antonio Ibarra, a “monster” and blamed President Biden for an “invasion” that is “killing our citizens.” Earlier in the day, at an event at the university, Governor Brian Kemp of Georgia decried “the unwillingness of this White House to secure the southern border.”

A third Republican, Rep. Mike Collins, who represents Athens, wrote on social media: “Laken Riley’s blood is on the hands of Joe Biden, Alejandro Mayorkas and the Athens-Clarke County government,” referring to the unified city-county. government.

Such statements have seemed to many liberals like demagogic rhetoric piled on a horrible crime. In an interview Sunday, Kelly Girtz, the Democratic mayor of Athens-Clarke County, said the conversation should focus on grieving the victim and blaming an individual rather than a group.

“This murder was a violent and heinous act,” he said, “and falls squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.”

When Laken Riley, 22, was found dead on a wooded trail at the University of Georgia, it unleashed waves of grief and fear that shook the university to its core.

Athens’ relatively liberal culture, its local immigration policies and the border crisis have combined with brutal crime to create a toxic mix at Georgia’s premier university, where student politics runs the gamut.

Outside the student center, Ella Jackson, 19, a freshman from Milton, Georgia, said she didn’t feel unsafe or worried. But she took issue with the local government’s policy on undocumented immigrants. “I really don’t think it’s our job to house illegal immigrants, and especially so close to a college campus.”

In recent years, the city has seen a rise in left-leaning local politicians, including Girtz, who have brought a new approach to social justice issues and correcting what they see as persistent wrongs of the Deep South. They have had no qualms about welcoming undocumented immigrants and a Hispanic community whose numbers have increased dramatically in and around Athens over the past 30 years.

At the same time, Athens remains a kind of sacred space for Georgian conservatives. The massive university, located in the center of the city, has educated many of the state’s most powerful Republicans, including Governor Kemp, an Athens native. And the school’s winning football team, as well as the following and adulation it generates, are central Georgia traditions that Kemp and others visibly weave into a conservative tapestry of culture and politics.

Kemp, a former Athens home builder and developer, won his first gubernatorial election in 2018 with a bold ad declaring, “I have a big truck, in case I need to round up illegal criminals and take them home.” “This month he promised to send Georgia National Guard troops to the US border with Mexico.

Girtz, the mayor, was first elected in 2006 to the commission that governs the unified city and county government. He said that Athens’ most activist group of politicians and their followers emerged, to some extent, from the new wave and post-punk music scene that emerged in Athens in the early 1980s, giving the world REM and the B- 52.

On Sunday morning, at a coffee shop near campus, the mayor, wearing an olive green military jacket and cap, dismissed the idea that he was responsible for the murder. He said Rep. Collins, who accused him of having blood on his hands, harbored “some sort of cartoon narrative about how the universe works.”

In addition to addressing issues of race and class that had long separated many of Athens’ black and white residents, the new liberal lawmakers took a defiant anti-Trump stance on undocumented immigrants, many of whom came to Athens to work. in poultry plants or arrived during the construction boom of the early 2000s.

In 2018, the local sheriff at the time, Ira Edwards, under pressure from Mr. Girtz and others, ended the practice of keeping arrested immigrants in jail for 48-hour periods to give federal Immigration and Immigration officials Customs Control the opportunity to collect them. for possible deportation.

The following year, Girtz and the commission passed a resolution denouncing white supremacy and stating that undocumented people should “feel welcome and comfortable” interacting with the government.

And in 2020, voters elected a liberal district attorney, Deborah González, who pledged to “take into account collateral consequences for undocumented defendants” when making charging decisions.

Conservatives were dismayed by all this, and continue to be.

On Monday, state Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, noted that Ibarra, the suspect in the University of Georgia murder, was issued a criminal citation for shoplifting at an Athens Walmart in October, according to court records. Records show a warrant was issued for his arrest, meaning he most likely missed a court date.

There is “an atmosphere where Athens is a welcoming place for people who, frankly, shouldn’t be in the United States,” Gaines said.

Ibarra was arrested by the US Border Patrol for crossing the border illegally in September 2022 and was quickly released with temporary permission to remain in the country, authorities said.

That release, or parole, was a practice the Biden administration used when officials were overwhelmed by large numbers of crossings. That practice ended about six months later.

In August, Ibarra was arrested in New York City on charges of child endangerment and violating driver’s license law, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He eventually moved to Athens and lived in an apartment a short distance from the crime scene.

A county library serves Pinewood Estates South, a mobile home park and one of several Latino-majority neighborhoods in Athens.Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times

In 2022, the Republican-led state legislature carried out what Democrats said was an act of retaliation, redrawing Athens districts to remove three of its most liberal members from the commission. Ms. González, the district attorney, was the main push for state lawmakers to create a commission last year with the power to remove state prosecutors. (That commission is currently in operational limbo.)

Gaines said this week that he and other Republicans would try in the coming days to push through bills to toughen policies around undocumented immigrants.

At a trailer park north of the city, José Tapía, 50, a Mexican construction worker and legal resident in the United States, said he expected things to get more difficult for his undocumented neighbors. “I think there’s going to be more tension,” he said. “I’m sure the police will be stricter.”

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