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Killing of Laken Riley is now front and center of US immigration debate and 2024 presidential race

ATLANTA (AP) — With an unscripted clash between President Joe Biden and a Georgia congresswoman at Thursday night’s State of the Union speech, the slaying of a Georgia nursing student was further cemented as a political rallying point in the 2024 presidential race.

Laken Riley, 22, has become the face of immigration reform for many conservatives in the days since she was killed while jogging in a park on the University of Georgia campus on Feb. 22.

At the State of the Union address, Biden held up a pin with Riley’s name on it as U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene shouted from the gallery: “Say her name!”


Immigration has emerged as a major campaign issue, dividing the nation and straining resources in New York, Chicago, Boston and other cities after migrants settle there and in communities across the country after crossing the nation’s southern border. Republicans say some migrants with criminal backgrounds are not vetted and are improperly released into communities, putting U.S. citizens at risk. They have seized on the Georgia case to make those claims as the 2024 presidential election heats up.

Riley’s killing is “gonna change this election as much as anything,” U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, an ally of former President Donald Trump, said shortly after her death.

“That’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” the South Carolina Republican said.


Riley grew up in Atlanta northern suburbs, graduated from River Ridge High School in Cherokee County and then attended the University of Georgia in Athens. She later transferred to Augusta University’s nursing college, attending classes on its Athens campus not far from the sprawling UGA campus. She remained active in the sorority she had joined at UGA.

Riley “loved nursing and caring for others,” according to her obituary from Poole Funeral Home. Hundreds of people attended her funeral at Woodstock City Church, one of the largest churches in the area.

“Our community and our world lost a shining light with the tragic passing of Laken,” Cherokee County schools superintendent Brian Hightower said in a statement. “An outstanding scholar athlete, Laken inspired classmates and teachers with her love of learning and her kindness to all.”


Riley was attacked near running trails on the UGA campus. Police found her body after a friend told police she had not returned from her morning run, authorities said.

She died of blunt force trauma in the attack, and there was no connection between her and the man accused of killing her before the crime, University of Georgia Police Chief Jeff Clark said at a news conference.

“This was a crime of opportunity where he saw an individual, and bad things happened,” Clark said.


Hours after Riley was slain, Athens homicide detectives pulled a photo from a surveillance camera of a potential suspect who wore a distinctive Adidas hat, according to a federal affidavit obtained by The Associated Press.

That eventually led them to an off-campus apartment complex where they searched the grounds and a Dumpster nearby and began to piece together details about Jose Ibarra, 26, a Venezuelan citizen. Immigration officials say entered the U.S. illegally and was allowed to stay. He unlawfully crossed into the U.S. in 2022, authorities said.

He faces charges including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call and concealing the death of another. He’s being held in a jail in Athens.


Shortly after the killing, Trump posted on his social media site, “Crooked Joe Biden’s Border INVASION is destroying our country and killing our citizens! The horrible murder of 22-year-old Laken Riley at the University of Georgia should have NEVER happened!”

“He’s an animal that came in,” Trump added on Michigan’s WFDF radio station.


The White House extended “deepest condolences” to Riley’s family after her killing.

“People should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law if they are found to be guilty,” spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández said.

On Thursday, Biden was confronted as he walked into the House chamber by Rep. Greene, a hardline Republican who wore a red Trump MAGA hat to the State of the Union address.

The pin she pressed into Biden’s hand said “Say her name,” the phrase evoking the language used by activists after the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police.

Midway through Biden’s speech, Greene pointed her finger and jabbed it toward Biden, shouting from the gallery, “Say her name!”

Biden then held up the button and said Riley’s name.


Ibarra remains in the Athens-Clarke County Jail. In a Feb. 28 court filing, a public defender representing Ibarra said he was not seeking bond for the time being.


Associated Press writer Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.

Jeff Martin, The Associated Press

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