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How a Georgia nursing student's killing reached Biden's State of the Union

President Joe Biden holds a Laken Riley button as he delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Thursday March 7, 2024.
Andrew Harnik
President Joe Biden holds a Laken Riley button as he delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol, Thursday March 7, 2024.

A heated debate over immigration in Georgia made its way onto an even bigger stage this week: President Joe Biden's State of the Union.

As Biden addressed the southern border in his speech, Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted from the chamber and pressed Biden to, "Say her name."

Greene was referring to Laken Riley, a 22 year-old nursing student found dead on the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens last month. A Venezuelan man who authorities say entered the U.S. illegally has been charged with her murder.

That revelation set off a firestorm among Georgia Republicans, who quickly sought to link the attack to the Biden Administration's immigration policies.

"All of Georgia and the entire country have been robbed by this inexcusable and avoidable murder," Republican Gov. Brian Kemp told an audience of business leaders in Athens not long after news of Riley's death made headlines. "Laken's death is the direct result of policies on the federal level and an unwillingness by this White House to secure the southern border."

The Biden administration has been calling on lawmakers to authorize additional funds to strengthen enforcement at the border, improve detention facilities and hire more border patrol agents and immigration judges. But so far the proposals haven't advanced in the divided Congress.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that the suspect in Riley's case, Jose Ibarra, was apprehended by border patrol agents in 2022 and was then released on parole. Ibarra had several run-ins with law enforcement in New York and Georgia prior to his arrest last month.

On Thursday night, Greene handed Biden a white button with Riley's name on it as he made his way through the House chamber to begin his address. Later, Greene interrupted the speech as the president chastised Republicans for blocking a bipartisan immigration bill.

"It's not about him or me," Biden said, referring to former President Donald Trump, who has made harsh rhetoric about illegal immigration a centerpiece of his reelection campaign and has said "immigrants are poisoning the blood of our country."

"It's about Laken Riley," Greene shouted.

Biden responded, saying Riley was "an innocent woman who was killed by an illegal," and went on to say, "To her parents I say my heart goes out to you, having lost children myself."

Republicans slammed Biden for appearing to mispronounce Riley's name as "Lincoln" in the off-the-cuff exchange. Some Democrats criticized the president for using "illegal" as a noun to describe a person, saying he was adopting rhetoric on the right that dehumanizes undocumented immigrants.

Earlier this week, Republicans in the U.S. House passed a bill called the Laken Riley Act, which among other things, would require ICE to detain undocumented people accused of committing theft-related crimes like shoplifting. The bill's sponsor, Georgia Republican Rep. Mike Collins, invited Riley's parents to attend the State of the Union as his guests, but he said that they declined.

But Georgia politicians and advocates had already been debating how to respond to Riley's death for weeks, as people in Athens and around the state grieved a student who was remembered by her pastor as a "gift to anyone who knew her."

Many top Georgia Republicans have deep ties to Athens and the University of Georgia and have targeted what they consider immigrant-friendly policies in the liberal college town.

"Fixing policy in the face of unspeakable tragedy is not politics," Athens Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines said in the Georgia House chamber last week. "It's doing the right thing to ensure something like this never occurs again."

Democrats warned Republicans of the consequences of politicizing a tragedy.

"It is easy and tempting during an election cycle to target minorities and immigrants in order to score political points," said state Rep. Pedro Marin, a Democrat and Georgia's longest-serving Latino lawmaker.

Research has shown that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate than native-born U.S. citizens and legal immigrants across many felony offenses.

Republican lawmakers in Georgia are now pushing through several immigration-focused bills during the final month of the state's legislative session. One proposal would require municipalities coordinate with federal immigration enforcement agencies or risk losing state funding. Opponents of the bill also say it would allow law enforcement to arrest people they suspect of being undocumented, opening the door to racial profiling.

Another bill would allow private citizens to bring legal action against municipalities they say are not fully cooperating with federal immigration enforcement.

WABE's Emily Wu Pearson contributed to this report.

Copyright 2024 90.1 WABE

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.