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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, Ga. — Hundreds, if not thousands, of students gathered on University of Georgia’s campus for a solemn vigil on Monday, united in their grief over the tragic deaths of two classmates.

Students shared stories about the interests and passions of Laken Riley and Wyatt Banks. Tears were shed. Prayers were invoked, songs were played.

Politics, for those somber 30 minutes, were unspoken. And there have been no big political marches or public demonstrations on campus beyond shared expressions of mourning and grief in recent days.

But Riley’s death quickly has become the latest flashpoint in the heated national debate on immigration and border policy. Last Friday, police arrested Jose Antonio Ibarra, a Venezuelan whom U.S. authorities say entered the country unlawfully. Police charged him with murdering Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student.

And that political debate also is percolating on UGA’s campus, if more quietly than elsewhere.

Minutes after Monday’s vigil ended, Thomas Chambers, a freshman from Johns Creek, confessed he was struggling to navigate grieving together as a student body and the yawning political divide unleashed by Riley’s homicide.

“There are significant disagreements about how this whole (immigration) issue should be handled,” said Chambers. “I think that has inflamed the whole issue and put people against each other.”

Foul play has been ruled out in Banks’ death. Authorities say there was no connection between the two deaths on campus, which happened within hours of each other.

But Riley’s homicide continues to make national headlines. And UGA’s students are drawn from the state’s liberal cities and rural conservative areas, reflecting Georgia’s complex political mix that is nearly equal parts Republican and Democrat.

The flagship state university is located in Athens-Clarke County, where progressive politicians run the local government. Mayor Kelly Girtz signed a resolution in 2019 in support of immigrants regardless of documentation status.

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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