Republicans slam Athens mayor for running a ‘sanctuary city,’ but the city denies being one

The City of Athens has been thrust into the national debate on immigration after the killing of Augusta State nursing student, 22-year-old Laken Riley.

Police arrested Jose Ibarra, 26, on murder charges over the weekend. Federal investigators said Ibarra is originally from Venezuela, but crossed the southern border illegally in 2022.

On Monday, the political fallout began.

On the Fox News Channel, Gov. Brian Kemp laid the blame on President Joe Biden.

"If the border was secured, this individual would’ve never been in the country," Kemp said. "Under Joe Biden‘s watch […] however many millions of people that have come across the border, we have no idea who all these people are."

Is Athens, Georgia a sanctuary city?

US Rep. Mike Collins (R-GA 10) said local Democratic leaders also were to blame.

"It’s not a university problem. This is an Athens problem," Collins said. "Athens is a sanctuary city."


A sanctuary city is commonly defined as a jurisdiction where local laws can serve to protect immigrants from deportation or prosecution.

When reached via email on Monday, Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said Athens is not a sanctuary city, adding that the state banned them and makes them prove every year they’re not breaking the law.

In 2019, the city council passed a resolution welcoming immigrants "of all statuses."

But a few weeks ago, following a town hall, the city clarified in a memo that the resolution "merely expresses a desire to be welcoming to people from all backgrounds" and doesn’t hinder law enforcement.

The memo said a commonly-cited website that identifies sanctuary cities labeled Athens-Clarke County as one because of a 2018 policy from the sheriff’s office dictating that it will no longer enforce a 48-hour detainer for Immigration and Customs Enforcement inmates who are not accused of any other crimes.

However, the policy appeared to be changed back later that day.

A records custodian for the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office sent FOX 5 the current policy, which states, "Staff shall make prompt notification as provided for in this directive to the Appropriate United States agency and/or foreign consulate whenever a foreign national is taken into custody."

The current policy stipulates that if a "detainer is issued but is not accompanied by a federal warrant or court order signed by a federal magistrate or federal judge, shall not be held solely on the ICE detainer," and with a warrant they still be released after 48 hours if federal agents don’t pick them up.

"I always say if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck," Collins said.

Collins has called on the Clarke County District Attorney and Mayor Girtz to resign.

Local officials, Democrats and Republicans respond

In a statement, a spokesperson for the DA’s office said, "We are still building a case and coordinating actions with law enforcement. The highest priority of this office is to seek justice for the victim and not politicize tragedy. We will follow the facts and the law," adding, "The victim’s family deserves better than to be treated as political pawns."

In a tweet Sunday, Democratic State Sen. Elena Parent blamed DC Republicans for killing the border bill in the Senate in a tweet Sunday, before adding, ""Let's not politicize Laken's tragic loss."

On the floor of the Senate, Georgia Sen. Jon Ossoff called for a moment of silence.

"In recognition of the loss of this young woman, her life cut too short, and in support of her family and loved ones," Ossoff said. "From my family, from my office, on behalf of the whole state, [we share] shock and outrage at this appalling murder."


Laken Riley

Late Monday afternoon, a spokesperson for the White House released this statement to FOX 5:

"We would like to extend our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Laken Hope Riley. People should be held accountable to the fullest extent of the law if they are found to be guilty. Given this is an active case, we would have to refer you to state law enforcement and ICE."

The Georgia Republican Party also issued a statement late Monday. Here's an excerpt:

"We at the Georgia Republican Party mourn the senseless death of Laken Riley. The city of Athens and the UGA community have been rocked by a preventable tragedy. Our deepest sympathies go out to her family and friends at this terrible time.

"This should have NEVER happened.

"President Biden’s wide open border policy allowed a Venezuelan illegal alien to come here and commit this crime. But that isn’t the whole story. Let’s go back to April of 2018. It was the second year of the Trump Administration. The media and Democrats did nothing but talk about "Russian Collusion" and "kids in cages." The anti-Trump fervor was so intense, it led blue cities, counties, and states across the country to enact "sanctuary city" legislation."