Laken Riley murder: What is a sanctuary city and are there any in Georgia?

GEORGIA — After officials confirmed a man accused of killing a nursing student entered the U.S. illegally, many are criticizing Athens for being a sanctuary city.

Last week, police arrested 26-year-old Jose Ibarra of Venezuela in connection to the murder of 22-year-old Laken Riley, who was attacked while running on UGA’s intramural fields.

On Sunday, Immigration Customs Enforcement sent Channel 2 Action News the following statement, confirming that Ibarra entered the country illegally:

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection arrested Ibarra on Sept. 8, 2022, after he unlawfully entered the United States near El Paso, Texas. He was paroled and released for further processing.”

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In the state of Georgia, Atlanta, Clayton County, DeKalb County and Athens-Clarke County are all considered sanctuary cities.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a sanctuary city is a city or jurisdiction that limits its cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts to protect low-priority immigrants from deportation.

While they typically do not detain immigrants solely based on ICE requests, USCIS said sanctuary cities can still cooperate with federal agencies, such as alerting them when an immigrant is released from jail or if they had been involved in any criminal activity.

In 2009, the state of Georgia voted to outlaw sanctuary cities; however, there were still jurisdictions at the local level that allowed sanctuary cities.

Then, in 2011, Gov. Nathan Deal signed an anti-illegal immigration law that would impose a prison sentence of up to one year and fines of up to $1,000 for people who knowingly transport illegal immigrants during the commission of a crime. The law also stated that workers convicted of using fake identification to get jobs in Georgia could be sentenced to 15 years and fined $250,000.

Some of the sanctuary cities in Georgia also have specific regulations.

According to USCIS, Atlanta and Clarkston have policies that prohibit local law enforcement from asking someone about their immigration status and the enforcement of federal immigration laws. Both cities provide legal assistance for immigrants and have a community task force to support refugees and asylum seekers.


Decatur and Athens-Clarke County have policies similar to Atlanta and Clarkston when it comes to asking someone about their immigration status.

USCIS added that Athens-Clarke County also provides legal assistance to immigrants in need.

In 2018, Clarke County Sheriff Ira Edwards said the Sheriff’s office would no longer honor detainers set in place by ICE.

“The Sheriff values partnerships with the law enforcement community and respects the role of ICE in keeping our country safe, but believes further resolution from lawmakers or the courts is necessary to honor ICE detainers not supported by a judicial warrant or court order,” Edwards said at the time.

It is unclear how authorities will address Ibarra’s immigration status during his trial.

Ibarra is being held in the Athens-Clarke County Jail without bond.

Channel 2 Action News reached out to Athens-Clarke County leaders for a statement regarding their sanctuary city status but has not received a response.

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