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Opinion: Laken Riley deserves justice – not to be exploited as a symbol of xenophobia or hate

Opinion by Raul A. Reyes

(CNN) — On Monday, a vigil was held at the University of Georgia (UGA) for Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student who was found dead on Thursday after jogging on campus. She died from blunt force trauma to the head, according to the local coroner.

The suspect in her killing is an undocumented migrant from Venezuela, which has resulted in a renewed firestorm over illegal immigration. Congressional Republican lawmakers have called for an immigration crackdown, and former President Donald Trump has denounced the suspect as a “monster.”

Riley’s death is a tragic loss to her family and community. The conflation of her killing with a migrant crime wave, however, is misplaced. At risk of being lost in this controversy are the basic tenets of American justice. Riley’s alleged killer is not representative of immigrants, nor do we even know yet if he is guilty. Any narrative that portrays undocumented immigrants generally as violent criminals is harmful and inaccurate.

Riley’s suspected killer, José Antonio Ibarra, is so far, just that – a suspect. While he faces felony murder, false imprisonment and other charges, he is still entitled to the presumption of innocence. This is the cornerstone of our criminal justice system. Under our Constitution, Ibarra is entitled to due process as well, like any other person on US soil.

The Supreme Court has extended such protections specifically to undocumented people based on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. Any rush to judgement regarding Ibarra is trampling on these principles.

Early reporting on Ibarra has found that he was arrested in 2022 after entering the US illegally and then released. He was later arrested by New York City police and charged “with acting in a manner to injure a child less than 17 and a motor vehicle license violation,” according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and again released. But these facts, along with the circumstances of Riley’s killing, do not mean that Ibarra should become the poster boy for undocumented migrants.

Study after study has found no conclusive link between immigrants and crime. In 2023 Stanford University researchers found that such a connection was “mythical” and unsupported by 140 years of data.

A 2020 Princeton University study found that undocumented immigrants in Texas tended to have fewer felony arrests than legal residents. In New York City, which has seen the arrival of 170,000 unauthorized migrants since Texas Gov. Greg Abbott began busing them to the city in April 2022, there has been no surge in crime in that period.

Besides, there are an estimated 10.5 million undocumented people in the US, and it is myopic to focus on only the worst elements among them. The ranks of our undocumented population have included a Wall Street executive, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalistmilitary veterans, and Harvard graduates.

Undocumented people served as front-line workers during the pandemic and some have helped rescue children from a kidnapper. Reducing all unauthorized migrants to the stereotype of a violent killer ignores the genuine contributions that they have made to this country.

Typical of the conservative response to Riley’s killing has been South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who in a post on X, formerly Twitter, said: “Nations like Venezuela are emptying their prisons of dangerous criminals to send them to America… The tragic murder in Georgia proves that Biden’s border policies are putting our kids in danger.”

Sadly, many Americans believe this kind of inflammatory rhetoric. A Pew Research survey this month found that, despite evidence to the contrary, 57% of Americans believe that large numbers of people seeking to enter the country leads to more crime.

This twisted narrative is dangerous. Consider that Latino student groups at UGA say they have already received “hate comments” although they had nothing to do with Riley’s killing and the suspect was not a student. Or that the Guardian Angels, a vigilante group in New York City, recently assaulted a man in the middle of a Fox News broadcast. The man was incorrectly identified as a “migrant” and is a New Yorker from The Bronx.

Even a much-publicized altercation between New York City police and seven migrants in Times Square has turned out to be less clear cut than originally thought; the New York Times reports that the police “initiated the encounter.”

Whoever is found guilty of killing Riley deserves to be punished to the full extent of the law. Until then, it is the height of cynicism for Republicans to use her death to score political points.

House Speaker Mike Johnson said in a post on social media Saturday that President Joe Biden needs to “close the border” in light of Riley’s death. Yet, in early February, Congressional Republicans blocked a potential bipartisan immigration deal that would have given the president authority, under certain circumstances, to do just that.

If the suspect is found guilty, the anger surrounding the Riley case should be directed at lawmakers who have repeatedly failed to overhaul our immigration system, creating a dysfunctional status quo that may have allowed a dangerous individual to be paroled into the country.

There are no partisan “sides” in the grisly killing of a beloved, innocent young person. Laken Riley deserves justice – not to be exploited as a symbol of xenophobia or hate.

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