Father of Laken Riley addresses slain daughter's legacy amid heated immigration debate

Father of Slain Laken Riley Speaks Out on Daughter’s Legacy Amid Immigration Debate

In Buford, Georgia, the father of Laken Riley, a nursing student from Georgia who tragically lost her life while jogging, shares his memories of her. He describes Laken as a resilient and academically gifted individual. However, he expresses concern that her death is being used for political gain, stirring up emotions ahead of the November elections.

Politicians have mentioned Laken’s name at various events and even proposed a bill related to immigration in her name. This has turned her tragic death into a contentious issue, especially since the suspect in her case is said to have entered the U.S. illegally. Jason Riley, Laken’s father, has spent the past month reflecting on the loss.

“I wish I could have been there to protect her,” Jason Riley revealed in an emotional interview on NBC’s “TODAY” show. It was his first public statement since the tragedy. “I wish it had been me instead,” he added.

Laken’s death has ignited a fierce debate on immigration policies under the Biden administration. The situation gained more attention when President Joe Biden mentioned her during a spontaneous moment in his State of the Union address.

Jason Riley voiced his discomfort with his daughter’s death becoming a political issue. He noted that it has led to divisive reactions, affecting both sides of his family.

Despite his and Laken’s mother’s divorce when she was young, Jason maintained a close relationship with his daughter. They frequently communicated, and Laken shared her aspirations to graduate from Augusta University’s nursing college and work at a children’s hospital. She was also focused on her studies, her sorority, and her church activities.

The last conversation between Jason and Laken occurred about two weeks before her untimely death. “It still feels surreal. I can’t believe it,” Jason said, struggling with his emotions. “Every day, I wake up thinking I can call her, but I can’t.”

The national spotlight on Laken’s death, especially after Biden’s speech, has made the grieving process even harder for her family. During the address, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene prompted Biden to mention Laken, which he did, albeit mispronouncing her name. This incident and Biden’s use of the term “illegal” drew criticism from immigration advocates.

Jason Riley expressed his frustration with the political use of his daughter’s tragedy. “It makes me angry. They’re using my daughter’s name for votes. She was much more than that. She was an angel,” he stated.

He supports former President Donald Trump and wishes Laken’s death hadn’t become so politicized. Yet, he acknowledges it has sparked necessary discussions on border security and support for women, including victims of human trafficking.

Laken’s story has become a rallying point for secure borders and critiques of the current administration’s immigration policies. However, Jason Riley points out that many other women’s stories remain unheard.

On the day of Biden’s address, the GOP-led House passed the Laken Riley Act, which aims to address certain immigration issues. This move has been criticized by some Democrats as political maneuvering.

Former President Trump has also linked Biden’s policies to Laken’s death, amid a significant increase in migrants crossing the southern border.

The suspect in Laken’s case, a Venezuelan citizen named Jose Antonio Ibarra, entered the U.S. illegally in 2022. He had a previous arrest in New York and was cited for shoplifting in Georgia before Laken’s death.

Laken, an experienced runner and marathon participant, went for a run alone on the day she disappeared. Her body was later found with signs of blunt force trauma. Ibarra was identified as a suspect the following day.

Ibarra is currently facing multiple charges, including malice murder. Jason Riley believes that better vetting of people entering the U.S. could prevent some violent crimes.

Despite attempts to link migrants to a surge in criminal activity, data does not support a migrant-driven crime wave. The University of Georgia community has called for enhanced security measures in response to the attack.

Jason Riley has chosen to focus on his daughter’s life rather than the ongoing investigation and political discussions. He fondly remembers the outpouring of love at her funeral and the efforts to establish a scholarship fund and foundation in her memory.

“She had so much more to offer the world,” Jason Riley reflected. “If everyone could live like Laken, the world would be a better place.”

This report was brought to you by Priscilla Thompson and Rebecca Byrd from Buford, and Erik Ortiz from New York.