In 2022, U.S. Border Patrol agents encountered 1.2 million immigrants trying to enter the country illegally through the southern border — almost twice as many as in 2021.

Among this massive group was Jose Ibarra, the man charged with murdering 22-year-old nursing student Laken Riley.

Riley’s murder is the latest flashpoint in an ongoing debate about border security.

Critics of illegal immigration blame lax border security and lenient law enforcement for the young woman’s death, claiming such policies allowed Ibarra to enter and stay in America when he should have been deported.

Others focus less on Ibarra’s alleged crime and more on the way he is being described. They argue citizens should call Ibarra an “undocumented” immigrant, rather than an “illegal” immigrant, to avoid maligning migrants as a group.

Regardless of policy positions, the brutality of Riley’s murder demands leaders prioritize stopping such crimes rather than regulating the language describing her alleged killer.

Athens police discovered Riley beaten to death less than three weeks ago on a jogging path behind the University of Georgia. Little information about the young woman’s death is public, beyond the affidavit charging Ibarra with:

  • Malice murder: “unlawfully and with malice aforethought, either express or implied, causing the death of another human being.”
  • Felony murder: “committing the offense of murder in the commission of a felony.”
  • Kidnapping: “abducting or stealing away another person without lawful authority and holding such other person against his or her will.”
  • False imprisonment: “detaining a person without legal authority.”
  • Aggravated assault: “assaulting with the intent to murder by causing great bodily harm with an object.”
  • Aggravated battery: “maliciously causing bodily harm to another by seriously disfiguring her body or a member thereof by disfiguring her skull.”

Immigration and law enforcement could have arrested or deported Ibarra at least three times before police say he murdered Riley.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirmed Ibarra came to the U.S. illegally from Venezuela in 2022. After a brief detainment, officials released him into the country to await an immigrant hearing.

Before Riley’s death, New York police arrested Ibarra for endangering a child, and Athens police cited him for shoplifting. He was wanted for skipping his shoplifting trial when Riley died.

The brutality of Riley’s death and Ibarra’s criminal history suggests America’s immigration and law enforcement systems aren’t working as they should. Leaders should be knee deep in finding solutions to these problems, starting with reconsidering releasing people into the country without appropriate  security screenings and investigating how someone awaiting immigration trial could commit multiple crimes without being detained.

Shoring up America’s security must be top priority because improved security could prevent more innocent women from dying. Debating whether to describe Ibarra as “illegal” or “undocumented,” on the other hand, will not.

That does not mean the words we use don’t impact the way we perceive groups of people. Proverbs 12:18 likens the tongue to a sword for good reason.

But “illegal” is not a pejorative term — it describes an action that is against the law. To describe someone as an illegal immigrant refers to the circumstances of their arrival to the country, not their worth as a person. Nor does it comment on the nature of migrants as a group.

In some ways, “undocumented” is a more misleading description of people entering the country illegally because it suggests this is a valid or acceptable way to immigrate. In the case of Ibarra, it blurs the important fact that he bypassed immigration law and detainment protocols to allegedly assault and murder Laken Riley.

Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (ESV). In light of Laken Riley and Lizbeth Medina‘s murders, and others like them, it is time to focus on practical solutions to the danger facing young woman.

Perhaps in time, when the threat is passed, citizens can refocus their energy on the different ways to describe immigrants and their circumstances.

Additional Articles and Resources:

Illegal Immigrant to Appear in Court for Death of Texas Teen, Illustrates Violent Trend

President Joe Biden, the State of the Union and Separating Fiction from Fact

Fentanyl Overdoses Rise, Connection to Illegal Immigration

Talking to Your Kids About Illegal Immigration

Familial DNA Testing on the Southern Border Shouldn’t Have Ended

The Border Crisis and the Deafening Silence of Women’s Groups