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University of Georgia students: United in grief, divided politically

Fletcher Page, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

Athens is surrounded by conservative counties in a Republican-led state. Gov. Brian Kemp and State Rep. Houston Gaines, both conservatives, are Athens natives and UGA graduates, and have sharply criticized federal and local authorities for what they say is lax immigration enforcement.

The UGA student body is “very divided,” said sophomore Luke Winkler, chairman of College Republicans of UGA. “I don’t know how else to say it.”

Winkler said many of his conservative friends have expressed outrage about Riley’s killing and that Ibarra was living in Athens after crossing into the U.S. illegally, but are unsure “how to handle” discussing it publicly.

“I want to raise awareness for an (immigration) issue that I believe is very pressing to our country, but I want to do it in a way that honors Laken Riley,” said Winkler, adding that he didn’t want to use Riley’s death “to gain political clout.”

Senior Zeena Moham said initially after Riley’s death, as police searched for the suspect and gathered details, students galvanized around making sure women felt safe. Conversation shifted when Ibarra was arrested.

“Politicians aren’t asking women what they need,” Moham said. “Instead they’re taking our pain and running with it to fit their own narratives.”

Some student groups have criticized what they see as a xenophobic reaction to Ibarra’s arrest.


“I think our grief is being exploited,” said senior Yasmine Sabere, the Young Democrats of UGA president.

Sabere called the atmosphere “heavy” as students returned to classes this week on campus, where grief and politics continue to coexist.

Chambers, who said he feels strongly that issues at the border led to Riley’s death, says it’s been hard in many ways.

“Even though it’s important to figure out what happened, who she was killed by and why they were here, I think it’s made it weird,” he said.


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