“Rejecting Divisive Rhetoric: Honoring Laken Riley’s Memory Through Meaningful Reform”

Feb 28th, 2024

GALEO Impact Fund

Jerry Gonzalez





“Rejecting Divisive Rhetoric: Honoring Laken Riley's Memory Through Meaningful Reform"

By Jerry Gonzalez

CEO of GALEO Impact Fund

(Norcross, GA) – Last week, we were all hit with the tragic news of the brutal murder of Laken Riley. By all accounts, Laken Riley was a deeply kind, intelligent, and hard-working young woman with a bright future ahead of her. That her life was cut short by a senseless act of violence is indefensible and all the more devastating.

In the last few days, Laken’s murder has been warped to fit the political agendas of right-wing opportunists. This should be a time for mourning the death of Laken Riley and coming together to address the very real issue of violence against women. Once the identity of the individual perpetrator was revealed, MAGA extremists and politicians chose to shift the blame away from the culprit himself and onto the entire immigrant community. This shift in narrative is dangerous and it does not even try to address the risks women face in lone runs– a particularly salient issue as 92% of women surveyed in 2023 said they had safety concerns during outdoor runs

We have all seen how unfactual anti-immigrant rhetoric leads to violence and hate crimes. El Paso, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh are all examples of instances where white nationalists were emboldened by heightened rhetoric against vulnerable communities. And, while the immigrant community has a target on their backs, women’s voices are being silenced and gaslit as they advocate against rampant violence they continue to experience. When our elected leaders should be finding ways to support and empower women, far too many have chosen to spin a local tragedy to justify targeting immigrants for political purposes. 

No matter where one falls on the political spectrum, everyone agrees that our immigration system is broken. However, our country’s long-standing commitment to providing asylum and an opportunity for a better life is not the problem. Rather, MAGA extremists’ adamant refusal to participate in bipartisan cooperation continues to stand in the way of meaningful progress on this vital issue of national security. 

The recent failure of bipartisan legislation that would have tied aid to Ukraine and Israel to border security and immigration reform shows how politicians on the extreme right continue to prioritize political convenience over their policymaking responsibilities. This bill, which included historic compromises and concessions that traditional conservatives had long sought, signified the most meaningful attempt at immigration reform in recent memory; unfortunately, at the urging of former President Trump, congressional Republicans tanked the bill in a desperate attempt to boost their chances in the upcoming elections. Time and time again, leaders on the far-right have shown that they would rather employ extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric than actually work to fix the problems at our southern border.

Now, that anti-immigrant rhetoric is being used by self-serving politicians in our own state to further a white nationalist agenda that seeks to harm Latino and immigrant communities while ignoring the actual needs of working Georgians. Additionally, federal courts have repeatedly ruled that immigration is the responsibility of the federal government; this notion was again reaffirmed when a U.S Court of Appeals struck Georgia’s HB 87, also known as the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act,” over a decade ago. This law, which mirrored Arizona’s “show me your papers” law, prohibited the transportation and harboring of “illegal immigrants” and authorized police to “check the immigration status of suspects who cannot provide identification.”

Despite Republicans’ continuous attempts at targeting the immigrant community, the court’s 2013 decision reinforced that states’ attempts to regulate subjects that are regulated by federal law will be struck down. Yet, right-wing politicians continue to waste time and taxpayer dollars pushing anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation that are useless in actually addressing issues of safety and security. They target immigrants in Georgia, instead of helping working Georgians with their basic necessities.

As one of the leading immigrant rights organizations in the State of Georgia, GALEO has repeatedly called for comprehensive immigration reform that rises to the challenges we face as a nation. Since our founding in 2003 we have stood firm against misdirected hate against immigrants and instead pushed for meaningful changes to the immigration system we all agree needs to be fixed. We need reforms that meet our country’s needs for national security and public safety while preserving human rights and keeping families together. Maintaining and exacerbating the existing status quo forces our immigrant community into the shadows. The result of this reality not only means that it is harder for victimized immigrants to effectively seek justice but also more difficult for law enforcement to track down individual bad actors. Standard issuing of work permits, driver’s licenses, and other verifiable documents to immigrants residing in our communities ensures both community safety and robust national security.

We must have reforms that deal with the hardworking immigrants who are already here, but because there is no line to get into, they are stuck in limbo without a way to get right with the law. Georgia’s Latino and immigrant communities are driving forces for our state’s economy and industries like poultry, agriculture, and the service industries would collapse without their labor. We must have reforms that are forward looking as well and a visa system that reflects our growing economic needs as a nation. The misguided legislation being proposed at the Capitol right now does not improve safety for women and it further wedges law enforcement away from immigrants who fear ICE retaliation for reporting a crime. 

The current slate of proposals being considered at the state legislature– many of which employ vague language that would create unfunded mandates and unenforceable processes for local municipalities– would violate constitutional freedoms, ignore the needs of local communities, and perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Latinos and immigrants.

As politicians today work to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment by taking advantage of a family and community’s tragedy, they are also inciting white nationalist rhetoric that may lead to violence against our communities in Georgia. They are pouring fire on a persistent white nationalist flame that has been set ablaze over many years of this type of rhetoric. In this time of grief and politicization, let us honor Laken Riley’s memory by rejecting divisive rhetoric and instead coming together to address the real issues at hand: the safety of women and the need for meaningful reform that strengthens our communities without dividing us.


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