Dem Mayor Defended Shielding Illegal Immigrants From ICE Days After Laken Riley Murder, Emails Show

By Published on April 4, 2024

Democratic Athens, Georgia, mayor Kelly Girtz defended his city’s policy to protect illegal migrants from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just days after such a migrant murdered 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley, according to emails obtained by the Immigration Reform Law Institute (IRLI).

Riley was out for a run on the University of Georgia campus when she was apprehended and killed by Jose Antonio Ibarra, an illegal immigrant from Venezuela, on Feb. 22. During an email correspondence with Clarke County Sheriff John Williams on Feb. 24, as reviewed by IRLI, Girtz declared his support for Athens’ policy regarding ICE detainers and “lack” of cooperation with the agency.

“One protocol that arises in discussion sometimes is the willingness (or lack thereof) of a jail to honor ICE detainers and hold in jail undocumented persons who have not committed an offense for which no legal resident would be held, simply because a person is undocumented,” Girtz told Williams via email on Feb. 24. “Your predecessor modified the Sheriff’s Office’s prior stance to eliminate detainer holds.”

Cities that welcome illegal migrants and provide them shelter — sometimes called “sanctuary cities” — often refuse to honor ICE detainers. These detainers are requests to state or local enforcement to notify the ICE prior to the release of an illegal criminal migrant from state custody, so that ICE can intercept them and transfer them to federal authorities for detention or potential deportation, according to the American Immigration Council.

Girtz goes on to claim that illegal migrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, pointing to research conducted by Stanford University.

“I support the detainer policy as one that is both humane and following the well-documented propensity of immigrants in the U.S. to be less criminally inclined than the native-born population,” Girtz told Williams, pointing him to a slideshow about how to deal with a crisis. “My take-away for the moment is that in the immediate wake of a tragedy, to ‘focus on the victim… avoid political messaging… focus on comfort and unity.’”

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Girtz was responding to an original email sent to him by Williams inquiring whether Athens identifies as a sanctuary city, to which Girtz does not appear to give a direct answer.

“The term ‘sanctuary city’ does not have a sole legal or procedural definition; instead it is a somewhat generic term that means different things to different people depending on the context of a discussion,” Girtz told Williams. “Many of the elements ascribed to ‘sanctuary cities’ are explicitly prohibited by state code. For example, in Georgia a government issued identification card cannot be provided by the state to undocumented persons.”

Ibarra was arrested shortly after killing Riley and currently faces several charges, including felony and malice murder, assault, false imprisonment and kidnapping. He was apprehended while trying to cross the southern border in El Paso, Texas, but was ultimately released into the country due to a lack of detention space.

Illegal immigration through the southern border has surged under the Biden administration. There were over 2 million migrant apprehensions at the southern border in fiscal year 2023, compared to roughly 1.6 million in FY2021.

Girtz’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


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