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Tester backs bill to detain immigrants accused of crimes

by KATE HESTON
Daily Inter Lake | May 16, 2024 12:00 AM

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester backed the Laken Riley Act last week, becoming the first Senate Democrat to throw support behind the legislation, which focuses on crimes committed by immigrants in the country illegally.

“After hearing from law enforcement officers across Montana, I’m backing the Laken Riley Act to make sure that individuals who enter our country and commit a crime are held accountable so that no Montana family has to worry about the safety of their loved ones,” Tester said in a May 9 statement. 

The legislation, which passed the House in a 251-170 vote on March 7, would require federal officials to detain immigrants who commit crimes, like theft, shoplifting or larceny, until the individual is deported. 

The bill is named for Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student at Augusta University, who was jogging on the University of Georgia campus when she was allegedly attacked and killed by Jose Ibarra, a Venezuelan citizen who entered the country unlawfully in 2022. Republicans have used the murder charge to portray Democrats as soft on immigration in the lead up to the November election.

Within weeks of her killing, Riley became the face of immigration reform for many conservatives. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a hardline Georgia Republican and staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump, attended the State of the Union address with a pin of Riley on her red suit and a shirt underneath that read “Say her name!” 

During the address, Greene shouted at President Joe Biden to say her name, prompting Biden to hold up a pin with Riley’s name on it. 

Tester, who faces a challenging reelection campaign, has repeatedly argued for securing the border, notably this year. Tester’s primary challenger, Republican businessman Tim Sheehy, has also made border policy central to his campaign. 

Following Tester’s support of the bill, Sheehy’s campaign attacked the three-term Democrat, calling him “two-faced” for previously opposing similar language in other measures and arguing that his support of the legislation is solely for his reelection campaign. 

The Sheehy campaign’s assertion is misleading, according to Tester’s office. While Tester voted against the addition of similar language into a packet of legislation to keep funding the government in March, the stand-alone Laken Riley Act has not yet seen the Senate floor for an official vote. 

Had a government shutdown not been looming and the Laken Riley Act on the floor as a standalone item, Tester would have supported the legislation, he said in March, according to Belgrade News. 

Tester earlier this year backed a bipartisan $118 billion immigration reform bill that earned support from the Border Patrol union and criticism from refugee rights groups. The legislation would have shut down the U.S.-Mexico border when crossings spiked, overhauled the asylum system and increased available detention beds. 

That bill ultimately died in February after former President Donald Trump came out against the proposal, which included funding for Ukraine and Israel. House Speaker Mark Johnson, R-La., warned that even if the Senate passed it, he would prevent it from going to a vote in the lower chamber. 

Tester, who voted for the legislation, argued it would have given resources to law enforcement, help Border Patrol agents and tackle the fentanyl crisis. 

“It is shameful that politicians in Washington have once again chosen to play politics with our border and put our national security at risk. Montanans are fed up with these political games and want to see our southern border secured now – and so do I,” Tester said in a Feb. 7 statement.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.