Sheet Riley’s murder reflects a broader danger. But it’s not ‘immigrant crime’

(Mike Stewart/Associated Press)

Sheet Riley’s murder reflects a broader danger. But it’s not ‘immigrant crime’

Op-ed, Immigration and the border

Charis E. Kubrin and Sarah Shannon

April 1, 2024

Americans have become all too familiar with Jose Antonio Ibarra, the man accused


nursing student Laken Riley on the University of Georgia campus. The disturbing details of these young women


are truly the stuff of nightmares. As mothers with children at or near college age, our hearts resonated with her family’s grief when we learned of this tragedy. For one of us, a faculty member at the University of Georgia, there was some comfort in grieving, along with the rest of the campus community.

As researchers who study crime, we were also struck by a dramatic shift that occurred just 24 hours after Riley’s death, when the public learned that Ibarra is a Venezuelan migrant who entered the country illegally. Locally and nationally, collective grief turned to collective vilification as politicians, pundits and others claimed that illegal immigration is fueling a crime wave exemplified by Riley’s murder.

This crime is in fact representative of a broader epidemic of violence, characterized not by the perpetrators, but by the victims: women. Alarmingly, more than half of women in the United States have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. The World Health Organization has identified violence against women as a major public health problem.

Unfortunately, this is not the problem that policymakers rushed to address in the wake of Riley’s death. For example, Republican lawmakers in Georgia are pushing legislation that would require police and sheriff’s departments to help identify, detain and deport immigrants in the country illegally, while the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a bill that would require federal detention of unauthorized immigrants who are accused of theft. Public perception is following suit: Trump’s proposed border wall has never been more popular, and online threats against migrants and Latino students at the University of Georgia are creating a climate of fear.

Are fears of widespread immigration crime justified? No.

One of us has been studying the link between immigration and crime for fifteen years and co-authored a comprehensive review of systematic research on the subject, which found that immigrants are less involved than natives on a range of crime measures. Our review of the small but growing body of research on undocumented immigrants specifically came to the same conclusion. We need immigration reform for countless reasons, but crime is not one of them.

Despite this well-established fact, news stories about Riley’s murder continue to headline Ibarra’s immigration status, fueling the belief that immigration and crime go hand in hand. This is consistent with a long-standing tendency to scapegoat immigrants for a variety of social problems, including alcoholism and disease.

The hand-wringing over the link between immigration and crime obscures the far more legitimate and pernicious problem of violence against women. Although men have historically been more likely to be victims of serious violence, the gap has closed in recent years. A third of female homicide victims are, as Riley reportedly said, killed by strangers, but most are killed by intimate partners or other people they know. In 2020 alone, 47,000 women worldwide were murdered by intimate partners or family members.

Shockingly, 41% of American women have experienced physical or sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner. One in three indicates that they have experienced serious violence or stalking. Even more horrifying, homicide is the leading cause of death among pregnant and postpartum women, surpassing obstetric causes of death by at least twofold. Poor women and minorities suffer disproportionate rates of violence.

The social and economic consequences of violence against women are staggering, amounting to more than $3 trillion in lifetime costs for the entire U.S. population. The long-term effects of intimate partner violence include physical and mental health problems and addiction


and an increased risk of arrest and incarceration.

Although U.S. prisons house more men than women, female incarceration rates have increased twice as fast as male rates since 1980. Conservative estimates suggest that about half of women in custody have been physically or sexually assaulted prior to incarceration, while research has found that 77% 98% experienced intimate partner violence.

The policy response has not been equal to the problem. The Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized in 2022, but only after four years had passed due to partisan bickering over expanded gun provisions. Most female victims of serious violence do not receive support services, and the availability of service providers across the country is terribly low: just 3.7 per 100,000 residents. A 2022 congressional report noted that as many as 400,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide. Despite increased attention and funding to address the backlog, many states are woefully behind and thousands of kits remain untested.

New restrictions on abortion and increasingly lax gun regulation are likely to fuel even more violence against women in many states. More than half of intimate partner homicides involve firearms, while research shows that enforcing stricter gun laws reduces homicide rates. Still, the Supreme Court is considering whether or not to uphold a federal law that bans people who are victims of domestic violence from owning guns.

The murder of Sheet Riley should remind us of the ways in which violence against women in America is trivialized, tolerated, and even facilitated. Exploiting this crime to demonize immigrants, preying on misplaced fears, calling for reactionary policies based on flawed beliefs, and winning votes in an election year is one more way to diminish and diminish the problem it actually represents. to lead.

Charis E. Kubrin is professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, member of the Council on Criminal Justice, and co-author of Immigration and Crime: Taking Stock. Sarah Shannon is an associate professor of sociology and director of the Criminal Justice Studies Program at the University of Georgia.


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