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How the right wing politicised the murder of Georgia student Laken Riley

Marjorie Taylor Greene at the State of the Union on 7 March (AP)
Marjorie Taylor Greene at the State of the Union on 7 March (AP)

“Say Her Name,” read the t-shirt Georgia firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene wore to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Thursday night.

Pins featuring Laken Riley’s name and face were also emblazoned across her bright red blazer, which matched her “Make America Great Again” cap.

The MAGA Republican handed the pins out to anyone she could – including to the president himself – and made sure to get herself noticed as she heckled throughout his speech, calling on him to do as her shirt said: “Say her name!”

It was a deliberate outfit choice – and one that took the tragic murder of the Georgia student who went for a run and politicised it to push her brand of politics.

Last month, Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, was attacked and killed while going for a run. She died of blunt force trauma to the head after her killer allegedly used an object to strike her, “disfiguring her skull,” before “dragging” her to a “secluded area”.

Police say her murder came at the hands of murder suspect Jose Antonio Ibarra, the man who was charged on 23 February with malice murder, felony murder, false imprisonment and kidnapping in the case.

Mr Ibarra is not a US citizen and is an undocumented migrant.

The 26-year-old Venezuelan migrant was arrested for “unlawfully entering” the country in September 2022, according to the ICE. He has since been accused of shoplifting in Georgia and was allegedly arrested in New York. However, the NYPD told The Independent it had no record of such an arrest.

And so, in the wake of the attack, Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, have used Mr Ibarra’s status to exemplify the ongoing issue at the southern border and touted Riley’s brtual killing as a way to bolster their anti-migrant agenda.

Marjorie Taylor Greene at the State of the Union 2024 (AP)
Marjorie Taylor Greene at the State of the Union 2024 (AP)

Almost as soon as the suspect’s immigration status became known, prominent Republicans quickly pushed anti-immigrant rhetoric and pointed fingers at the president.

On Truth Social, the former president wrote: “Crooked Joe Biden’s Border INVASION is destroying our country and killing our citizens!”

He called Mr Ibarra a “monster” who “illegally entered our Country in 2022…and then was released AGAIN by Radical Democrats in New York after injuring a CHILD!!”

If elected president, the 2024 Republican party frontrunner promised to “immediately Seal the Border, Stop the Invasion, and on Day One, we will begin the largest deportation operation of illegal CRIMINALS in American History!”

House Speaker Mike Johnson joined in the rhetoric on X.

“The brutal murderer who took the life of Laken was one of the millions of illegal aliens that the Biden Administration simply released and unleashed upon our country,” he said. “The brutal murderer who took the life of Laken was one of the millions of illegal aliens that the Biden Administration simply released and unleashed upon our country.”

Tennessee Sen Marsha Blackburn similarly wrote: “The disastrous policies and negligence of the Biden administration is putting American lives at risk!”

Ahead of the president’s State of the Union, Georgia Republican Rep Mike Collins invited Riley’s parents as his guests. They declined.

Laken Riley (Supplied)
Laken Riley (Supplied)

Just hours before it got under way on Thursday, the House then passed the Laken Riley Act — a measure introduced by Mr Collins that would require the detention of any migrant committing burglary or theft. In total, 214 Republicans and 37 Democrats voted for the bill.

“The Laken Riley Act would help prevent future tragedies. If Senator Schumer and President Biden care to protect Americans and are serious about securing the border, they will bring this legislation up for a vote and sign it into law immediately,” Speaker Johnson said on Thursday.

New York Democratic Rep Jerry Nadler voted against the measure. Mr Nadler accused Republicans of “exploiting her death for a partisan stunt” and “throwing together legislation to target immigrants in an election year,” CNN reported.

As did Texas Democratic Rep Veronica Escobar, who posted on X: “We all want Laken Riley’s murderer to be held accountable...Republicans should be ashamed of exploiting this tragedy for their dangerous political games.”

It’s unclear whether the bill will have any traction in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

The right-wing’s emphasis on the murder suspect underscores the importance of immigration as an issue in the 2024 election.

Riley’s killing is “gonna change this election as much as anything,” South Carolina GOP Sen Lindsey Graham predicted.

But, despite making these sweeping claims, many Republican lawmakers have skillfully omitted some relevant facts.

For one, there is no evidence to suggest people who migrate to the US, including those who are undocumented, commit more crimes than those born in America, studies show.

After being interrupted by Ms Greene shouting Riley’s name during his State of the Union, Mr Biden made this very point. He stunned Republicans by saying Laken Riley’s name, and even paused to hold up a pin with her name printed across it.

“Laken Riley, an innocent young woman who was killed by an illegal,” Mr Biden said, sending the crowd into a shocked silence. “But how many thousands of people, being killed by legals?”

Jose Antonio Ibarra (Clarke County Sheriff’s Office)
Jose Antonio Ibarra (Clarke County Sheriff’s Office)

The president also pointed out that Republicans – beholden to Mr Trump – are the reason for the stalled bipartisan border deal.

Republicans shied away from a border compromise last month, at the urging of Mr Trump who did not want Mr Biden to have a victory ahead of the election.

“I believe that given the opportunity for a majority in the House and Senate would endorse the bill ... But unfortunately, politics [has] derailed this bill so far. I’m told my predecessor called members of Congress in the Senate to demand they block the bill,” Mr Biden said of Mr Trump, whose name he would not say.

“I would respectfully suggest to my Republican friends ... to the American people – get this bill done. We need to act now,” he added.

Mr Biden’s remarks about Riley and the border deal were significant as Mr Trump, his presumptive 2024 rival, tries to make the border issue a fixture of his campaign.

But many appear to be seeing through the Republican efforts to politicise Riley’s murder.

Several social media users condemned Republicans for these efforts.

“Another Y’all using their child’s death to make a political point is a disgusting side show,” one X user wrote.

Another remarked on Ms Greene’s getup at the address, accusing her of “capitalizing on a horrific tragedy,” adding: “If I was in the Laken Riley family I would rip that pin right off of her.”

Another said: “Laken Riley’s parents refused the invitation from Mike Johnson but Marge is intent on making the family’s grief into a political issue.”

“The Republicans are trying to make Laken Riley a political issue. They have gone to the bottom of the pit,” another wrote.

“No Respect for the grieving families.”