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Laken Riley's father doesn't want his daughter's death to be a political talking point. He's not alone.

The Georgia student, who was killed allegedly by an undocumented immigrant, is the latest to be used as a political flash point in the fight over border security.

From left: Laken Riley, Mollie Tibbetts and Kate Steinle.
From left: Laken Riley (via Facebook), Mollie Tibbetts (AP) and Kate Steinle (via Facebook).

The father of Laken Riley, the 22-year-old Georgia nursing student who was killed last month, spoke out this week, telling NBC News that he’s “angry” about the way his daughter’s death has been politicized.

Riley’s death has become a flash point in the heated debate over border security ever since police revealed that the man suspected of killing her had allegedly entered the country illegally two years ago. Former President Trump and fellow Republicans have pointed to Riley as proof that President Biden hasn’t done enough to prevent potentially dangerous immigrants from illegally crossing the southern border, claiming that she would be alive today if not for the Biden administration’s immigration policies.

Earlier this month, House Republicans and 37 Democrats passed a bill named for Riley, which requires the Department of Homeland Security to detain undocumented immigrants who’ve been charged in the U.S. with burglary or theft.

But Riley is not the first young woman whose untimely, violent death — allegedly at the hands of someone in the country illegally — has been seized by those seeking to crack down on immigration. But despite these few high-profile examples, which have been further elevated by conservative politicians, there is little evidence that there’s a crime wave driven by undocumented immigrants in the U.S., NBC News and the Washington Post report.

From 2012 to 2022, undocumented immigrants had a homicide conviction rate 14% below the rate of native-born Americans, according to findings by Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

“This is a public perception problem. It’s always based upon these kinds of flash point events where an immigrant commits a crime,” Graham Ousey, a professor at the College of William & Mary and the co-author of “Immigration and Crime: Taking Stock,” told NBC News. “If you have leaders, political leaders who are really pushing that narrative, I think that would have the tendency to sort of push up the myth.”

LAKEN RILEY

Laken Riley via Facebook
Laken Riley via Facebook

Context:

The 22-year-old nursing student at Georgia’s Augusta University was reported missing by her friends on Feb. 22, prompting a police search, after she never returned from a morning run. Her body was later found in the woods near a jogging trail on the University of Georgia (UGA) campus. The cause of Riley’s death was determined to be blunt force trauma, according to authorities.

The suspect, Jose Ibarra, a 26-year-old Venezuelan citizen who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally in 2022, was released by border officials while his immigration case was being reviewed, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Ibarra faces multiple murder and assault charges. He has not yet entered a plea to the charges, and his attorneys have requested a jury trial.

What politicians have said:

Laken Riley’s name was evoked several times by politicians on March 7, the evening of President Biden’s State of the Union address.

Hard-line Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, one of Trump’s biggest allies, wore a T-shirt that read “Say her name Laken Riley” to the event. Greene heckled Biden in the middle of his speech, yelling at him to “say her name!”

President Biden responded saying, “Lincoln [Laken] Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal. That’s right,” appearing to say her first name incorrectly. “But how many thousands of people are being killed by legals? To her parents, I say, my heart goes out to you, having lost children myself. I understand.” Following the address, Biden came under fire from Democrats for using the term “illegal” — which he later said he regretted.

At a March 9 campaign rally in Rome, Ga., former President Trump was quick to lambast Biden for apologizing “for calling Laken’s murderer an illegal.”

“What Joe Biden has done on our border is a crime against humanity and the people of this nation for which he will never be forgiven,” Trump claimed. “Laken Riley would be alive today if Joe Biden had not willfully and maliciously eviscerated the borders of the United States and set loose thousands and thousands of dangerous criminals into our country.”

What her family has said:

Jason Riley, Laken Riley’s father, spoke out about how his daughter’s name has been used for political gain. “I think it’s being used politically to get those votes,” Jason Riley told NBC News. “It makes me angry. I feel like, you know, they’re just using my daughter’s name for that. And she was much better than that, and she should be raised up for the person that she is. She was an angel.”

Jason Riley told NBC that while he doesn’t want his daughter’s name used for political purposes, he supports Trump and believes his daughter’s death has sparked important conversation about the southern border.

MOLLIE TIBBETTS

Mollie Tibbetts
Mollie Tibbetts (AP)

Context:

The 20-year-old University of Iowa student was abducted near her home in Brooklyn, Iowa, while out for a run in the summer of 2018. A month later, police identified Cristhian Bahena Rivera, who was in the U.S. illegally, as the suspect. He was charged with first-degree murder and was later sentenced to life in prison without parole.

What politicians said:

Trump, who was president at the time, invoked Tibbetts’s name in advocating for further construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family,” Trump said in an August 2018 video released via Twitter. “A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed. We need our border laws changed. We need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren’t going to do it.”

Fellow Republicans said Tibbetts’s death was “preventable” and blamed the “broken immigration system.”

What her family said:

In September 2018, Mollie Tibbetts's grieving father, Rob Tibbetts, wrote an opinion column in the Des Moines Register condemning politicians’ rhetoric against immigrants and pleaded with them to stop using his daughter's name for political gain.

“Sadly, others have ignored our request. They have instead chosen to callously distort and corrupt Mollie’s tragic death to advance a cause she vehemently opposed,” Rob Tibbetts wrote. “I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome. But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”

KATE STEINLE

Kate Steinle via Facebook
Kate Steinle via Facebook

Context:

Kate Steinle, 32, was walking with her father on a San Francisco pier in July 2015 when she was fatally struck by a single bullet from a gun fired by a Mexican national named Jose Inez Garcia-Zarate.

Garcia-Zarate, who had previously been deported from the U.S. at least five times, said he had fired the gun by accident. In 2017, a jury acquitted him of manslaughter and murder charges, finding him guilty only of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The New York Times reports that Garcia-Zarate is in the custody of ICE and faces imminent deportation to Mexico.

What politicians said:

Prior to the shooting, in late March 2015, Garcia-Zarate had been arrested on an outstanding warrant but subsequently released — despite a request from ICE to keep him in custody — after the San Francisco district attorney dropped the charges.

In the wake of Steinle’s death, politicians from both sides of the aisle, including then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, joined many Republicans in condemning San Francisco’s “sanctuary” policy, which limits cooperation between local police and immigration authorities.

Then-presidential candidate Trump referenced Steinle’s death frequently on the campaign trail in 2016. His campaign released a statement that said, in part: “This senseless and totally preventable act of violence committed by an illegal immigrant is yet another example of why we must secure our border immediately.”

What her family has said:

In 2015, Kate Steinle’s brother, Brad Steinle, was outraged that Trump was using his sister’s name to promote his immigration policies.

“Sensationalizing it is not the route we would like to go,” Brad Steinle told CNN. “I’ve never heard a word from his campaign manager, I’ve never heard a word from him. It’s disconcerting. I don’t want to be affiliated with someone who doesn’t have the common courtesy to reach out and ask about Kate, and our political views and what we want.” Brad called Trump’s border wall “not rational” and “not commonsense.”