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

President Joe Biden holds up 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, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Joe Biden holds up 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, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

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 Hope 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!”

HERE’S WHAT TO KNOW

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.

WHO WAS LAKEN RILEY?

Riley grew up in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, graduated from River Ridge High School in Cherokee County where she ran on the cross-country team, 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.

“Her smile was extremely infectious, and she spread joy to others everywhere she went,” according to her obituary, which added that she loved nursing and caring for others.

Hundreds of people attended her funeral at Woodstock City Church, one of the largest churches in the area.

“Her love for spreading God’s word led her to attend mission trips through the church. Her love for the Lord was exemplified in every aspect of her life,” her obituary said.

Cherokee County schools superintendent Brian Hightower said in a statement that Riley was “an outstanding scholar athlete” who inspired classmates and teachers.

“Our community and our world lost a shining light with the tragic passing of Laken,” Hightower said.

THE KILLING OF LAKEN RILEY

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.

THE SUSPECT

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 Ibarra 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.

FORMER PRESIDENT TRUMP’S REACTION

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.

PRESIDENT BIDEN’S REACTION

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.

REP. GREENE’S REACTION

Greene took to Facebook on Friday to blast Biden’s address as “divisive” and “angry.”

“President Biden finally recognized Laken Riley was murdered by an illegal that HE let in our country, but couldn’t even say her name correctly,” Greene said in a Facebook post, referring to how Biden appeared to garble Riley’s first name.

In a separate post Thursday night, Greene said she also offered a pin to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. “He refused to say her name and refused to take the pin,” she said.

WHERE THE CASE STANDS NOW

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.

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

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