Protesters in Georgia disrupted a news conference Wednesday morning as Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz defended the city's policies aimed at limiting cooperation with federal authorities enforcing immigration enforcement actions.

Protesters in Georgia disrupted a news conference Wednesday morning as Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz defended the city’s policies aimed at limiting cooperation with federal authorities enforcing immigration enforcement actions.

Tensions over such practices, sometimes deemed as “sanctuary” policies, started rising last week after the suspect in the slaying of nursing student Laken Riley was revealed to be an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela.

Protesters called for the mayor’s resignation and accused him of being “a liar” and having “blood on your hands for this murder.” They also shouted “invasion” and “this is America.”

Protesters at Athens-Clarke County Mayor Kelly Girtz’ news conference on Wednesday.Joshua L. Jones / USA Today Network

With Athens increasingly becoming an immigration flashpoint, Girtz warned “against conflating immigration and crime.”

“Responsibility for this crime rests solely on the perpetrator,” the mayor, a Democrat, said in relation to Riley’s killing.

Local governments in Georgia are required by state law to certify that they’re cooperating with federal immigration officials in order to get state funding. However, cities and counties can limit how closely their law enforcement authorities work with federal immigration agencies.

Athens and Clarke County authorities have said they check detainees’ criminal history and hold anyone with outstanding warrants, but do not keep unauthorized immigrants jailed if they have no criminal history.

“No policies have been adopted by the mayor’s commission that have created sanctuary city status in Athens,” Girtz said, adding that his office files documents to the Georgia Department of Audits annually showing that Athens is not a “sanctuary city” as defined by the state’s law.

Riley’s body was found Thursday after a friend reported her missing when she didn’t return from a jog that morning in wooded trails within the University of Georgia. The 22-year-old was a UGA graduate studying nursing at another school. University Police Chief Jeff Clark told reporters that Riley had suffered “visible injuries” and died of blunt force trauma. Clark also described Riley’s killing as a “crime of opportunity.”

Jose Antonio Ibarra was identified the next day as a suspect in the young woman’s death. Ibarra, 26, was arrested on several charges, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery and concealing the death of another. Ibarra did not attend the University of Georgia and is an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela.

Since then, some Republican leaders have pointed to Riley’s killing to push for hard-line immigration policies, while some Democrats have said that connecting Riley’s death with immigration and border security is a “cheap” political tactic.

According to the National Institute of Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, “recent research suggests that those who immigrate (legally or illegally) are not more likely, and may even be less likely to commit crime in the U.S.”

Latino students and other Hispanic groups in the state have put out letters condemning the killing and have also have made pleas against hateful rhetoric directed at Hispanics and immigrants. Some community organizers have taken their personal information off websites following posts with language about “hunting for immigrants.”

“Latinos and immigrants in general are valuable to Georgia,” Gilda Pedraza, executive director and founder of the Latino Community Fund Georgia, told NBC News Monday.

Over the weekend, her organization shared a statement outlining some of the contributions of immigrants in Georgia — including paying billions in taxes and making up large portions of the state’s workforce.

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