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Georgia House passes bill requiring jailers to identify and hold immigrants after student's killing

State Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, watches the voting board during the vote for HB 1105, which would penalize sheriffs who don't coordinate with federal immigration authorities, at the House of Representatives in Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024.
(Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
State Rep. Houston Gaines, R-Athens, watches the voting board during the vote for HB 1105, which would penalize sheriffs who don't coordinate with federal immigration authorities, at the House of Representatives in Atlanta on Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024.

Georgia House Republicans are backing a bill that would require every eligible police and sheriff’s department to help identify undocumented immigrants and detain them for possible deportation.

The House voted 97-74 on Thursday for House Bill 1105 after police accused a Venezuelan man of beating a nursing student to death on the University of Georgia campus. The measure moves to the state Senate for more debate.

Jose Ibarra was arrested Friday on murder and assault charges in the Thursday death of 22-year-old Laken Riley. Ibarra, 26, is a Venezuelan citizen who immigration authorities say unlawfully crossed into the United States in 2022. It is unclear whether he has applied for asylum.

Riley was a nursing student at Augusta University’s Athens campus, after starting her college career at the Athens campus of the University of Georgia. She was found dead Feb. 22 after a roommate reported that she didn’t return from a morning run in a wooded area.

The bill would also set new requirements for how jail officials should check with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine whether people are known to be in the country illegally. Republican state Rep. Jesse Petrea of Savannah said that clause is needed to enforce existing state law requiring sheriffs to check with ICE on people who don’t appear to be American citizens.

“Fixing policy in the face of unspeakable tragedy is not politics," said Rep. Houston Gaines, an Athens Republican. "It’s doing the right thing to ensure something like this never occurs again.”

Sheriffs deny they are disregarding the law to check with ICE. The bill would make sheriffs who don’t check immigration status guilty of a misdemeanor. The bill would also deny state funding to jails and sheriffs that don’t cooperate.

Democrats warned the bill would cause people to be detained for long periods, would separate parents born elsewhere from U.S.-born children and spark distrust of police in immigrant communities. They said it was rooted in a false narrative that immigrants bring crime, citing studies that show immigrants are less likely to be arrested.

“We want justice for what happened to Laken Riley. We don’t want violent people who are here legally or not legally to be on the streets," said Rep. Esther Panitch, a Sandy Springs Democrat. "But this bill won’t do it. This bill won’t close our borders. It will not make us safer, and it will not make women safer.”

The law would move Georgia closer to states with more aggressive immigration laws like Texas, which starting in March will allow police to arrest migrants who enter the state illegally and give local judges the authority to order them out of the country.

Georgia itself passed a prior harsh law cracking down on immigration in 2011, although it later backed away from parts of it. Rep. Pedro Marin, a Duluth Democrat who is the longest-serving Latino member of the House, said he has seen people capitalize on fear of foreigners before.

“I have witnessed again and again, ambitious representatives and senators use fear as a strategy to attain and maintain electoral office," Marin said.

But Rep. Rey Martinez, a Latino Republican from Loganville, said his party is only targeting criminals.

“We’re not after the immigrants. We’re not. We’re not after them," Martinez said. "What we are after is these folks who commit crime. That’s what we’re after.

Petrea added pointed criticism of Ibarra: “He said he was here for asylum. He was here for assault.”

The requirement to help ICE would require eligible cities and counties to apply for what is known as a 287(g) agreement to let local officers enforce immigration law. It's unclear how many would be accepted — President Joe Biden's administration has de-emphasized the program.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center in July counted six of 159 Georgia counties with 287(g) agreements with ICE. Five of those are only in jails. Oconee County, an Athens suburb, serves warrants for immigration violations and deportation orders, but only inside its jail. The program doesn't empower local law enforcement to make immigration-specific arrests outside a jail. State agencies also cooperate with ICE.

At least three Georgia counties dropped jail-based cooperation with ICE, according to the center, including two big suburban Atlanta counties where it was major campaign issue — Gwinnett County and Cobb County.

“This program ripped apart families, children and families," said House Democratic Whip Sam Park of Lawrenceville.

But Petrea said local assistance to is needed. “Not cooperating with the federal immigration authorities endangers public safety and it makes a mockery out of our nation’s immigration laws, period," he said.