Laken Riley’s murder and the long shadow of Willie Horton

Voters are furious about the human costs of open borders — and they know who to blame

laken riley
Trump supporters hold images of Laken Riley before he speaks at a rally in Rome, Georgia (Getty)
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The most effective ad ever made for a presidential election featured a violent, career-criminal, Willie Horton, walking out of a Massachusetts prison on a weekend pass. On one of those passes, he went on another vicious crime spree. George H. W. Bush used those crimes — and the lax policies that let Horton roam the country — to destroy his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis.

The past is prologue. Once again, voters are worried about their safety and angry about the open-border policies that have degraded it. Donald Trump knows that, so he will be…

The most effective ad ever made for a presidential election featured a violent, career-criminal, Willie Horton, walking out of a Massachusetts prison on a weekend pass. On one of those passes, he went on another vicious crime spree. George H. W. Bush used those crimes — and the lax policies that let Horton roam the country — to destroy his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis.

The past is prologue. Once again, voters are worried about their safety and angry about the open-border policies that have degraded it. Donald Trump knows that, so he will be using ads like the one Bush used against Dukakis. They will have the same devastating impact.

A little background is helpful. The 1988 ad (the video is here) was a searing attack on Dukakis’s lenient parole rules and his “soft on crime” policies, showing how they endangered the public. Willie Horton was a compelling example. He was serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole after stabbing a boy nineteen times during a robbery, killing him. Yet the Massachusetts prison system, under Dukakis’s leadership, repeatedly gave Horton passes to leave for the weekend.

What could possibly go wrong? Lots. On his tenth weekend pass, Horton chose not to return. He left the state and went on another brutal crime spree, committing armed robbery (again), assault and rape. Bush pinned those crimes on Dukakis and used the ad to highlight his sharp differences from the Massachusetts governor. It worked.

Since Horton was black, the media reflexively called the ad racist, and some voters undoubtedly saw it that way. But most saw it as a legitimate attack on public officials who abdicated their primary duty to protect law-abiding citizens from predators. That obligation is a fundamental responsibility of government at all levels. Yes, voters want law enforcement to respect our constitutional rights, without racial bias. But they also want protection. They don’t want law enforcement abandoned as part of some do-gooder crusade for “social justice.” They fear the results.

The public’s right to safety, supported by effective law enforcement, was the central message of the Willie Horton ad. That message will reappear this year in countless ads and local news stories, featuring violent crimes committed by illegal immigrants allowed into the country because of Joe Biden’s policies. The murder of Laken Riley, a Georgia nursing student, is the most prominent recent incident. It won’t be the last.

The aftermath of Riley’s death highlights several overlapping issues at the top of voters’ minds. Republicans will exploit them all.

First, between now and November, Biden will be tagged with letting violent criminals and a tsunami of drugs into the country, thanks to an porous southern border and the cartels that exploit it. Local officials will meet the same fate if they don’t treat crime by illegal immigrants seriously. All too often, they don’t.

The damage caused by these failed policies is why illegal immigration is already a major campaign issue, nationally and locally. The issue is not only violent crime, important as that is, but also the high costs of providing food, housing, medicine, education and other services for millions of immigrants who have crossed into the US illegally during the Biden years.

The numbers are astronomical. According to US Customs and Border Patrol, more than 7.3 million people have been apprehended crossing the border illegally during the Biden presidency. Another million or more have escaped apprehension altogether. These “gotaways” include spies, terrorists and criminal gangs running drugs and people into the country. FBI director Christopher Wray has testified that Mexican smuggling gangs have now formed connections with Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Their partnership makes sense. Terrorists need help infiltrating into the US, and smuggling gangs can provide it for a profit.

If there is a mass casualty event linked to these border failures, one of the casualties will be the president’s political future. He is already sinking under the weekly toll of murders and fentanyl deaths, which voters attribute to his policies on immigration and crime.

Second, crimes committed by illegal immigrants have become a major local issue, featured prominently in community papers, radio programs and TV broadcasts. That’s true across the country. Migrants have spread out, making every state a “border state.” That influx has a direct impact on local governments. When incumbents have “soft on crime” records, they are blasted for it by their political opponents. It’s a strong issue in all but the bluest districts, and it is becoming more important in those, too.

The financial burdens are already a major local issue. State and local governments simply don’t have the money to pay for all the services needed to care for millions of low-income immigrants.

The squeeze on government resources has put illegal immigrants in direct competition with local residents for essential services, as well as for entry-level jobs. That competition is felt acutely in the African-American community, where it cuts into support for Democrats. The impact could hurt the party in November since Democrats need overwhelming support from black voters to win.

These divisive issues resonate in even the most progressive locales. Years ago, when those cities and states proclaimed themselves “sanctuaries,” they implemented laws prohibiting local police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. That put real teeth in their “sanctuary” proclamations since US Immigration and Customs Enforcement needs help from local governments to determine if their detainees are wanted for crimes elsewhere. If they are, federal authorities hope to transfer or deport them. But ICE needs a few days to make that determination, and it needs local authorities to notify them if they are holding an illegal immigrant. If they are, and if that prisoner is wanted elsewhere, it needs those local authorities to turn over the prisoners voluntarily. Sanctuary cities and states won’t do any of those things. Social justice. They typically release prisoners quickly (both migrants and US citizens) and then ignore them as they disappear into the community.

This deliberate obstruction endangers local citizens and faces growing opposition from voters. They can see the crime, the tent cities on downtown streets and city parks, and the overflowing homeless shelters in airports, hotels, and public buildings. They can see the new hordes of beggars in supermarket shopping lots. Voters are demanding relief — and safety.

Laken Riley’s murder is a horrific case in point. Her accused killer, Jose Ibarra, had been arrested in New York and then released before ICE could decide whether to detain him. He is now charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call and concealing a body. His brother, Diego, another illegal immigrant, has now been arrested for a fake green card and is suspected of being part of a Venezuelan gang, “Tren de Aragua,” or TdA. Other migrants, arrested for the brutal beating in New York’s Times Square, were part of the same gang.

One reason for TdA’s rapid rise in the US is that Venezuela opened its prisons to let criminal gangs flee to the US. Instead of resisting that influx, the Biden administration welcomed them by enacting special provisions that allow large numbers to live and work in the US (30,000 per month from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, combined). They cannot be vetted since there is no accurate foreign data.

The results are predictable. Last week, in fact, a Haitian immigrant was arrested for raping a minor at a Massachusetts shelter. Crimes like that dominate the local news, and voters’ minds. They are a disaster for the country — and for Democrats.

Third, the massive illegal influx is both an immigration and crime problem, as well as a fiscal train wreck for cities and states. These issues are underscored every time a violent crime by illegal migrants makes the news. That’s a significant political repercussion of the rape in Massachusetts, the beating in Times Square, the murder on a Georgia campus and many more crimes to come. Democrats are sure to feel the blowback from voters, who associate those crimes with progressive policies, enacted by the Biden administration.

Republicans and some moderate Democrats are already running hard against incumbents who support these lax policies. A good example is this recent ad that juxtaposes Laken Riley’s murder with Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign promises not to prioritize the deportation of illegal immigrants or jail them while awaiting deportation. Hearing those explicit promises in Biden’s own words ties him directly to the deadly consequences. It’s devastating, and there’s no way to wriggle out.

In fact, Biden made it worse by apologizing for calling the alleged murderer an “illegal immigrant.” Democrats hate that term. They prefer circumlocutions like “irregular immigration.” Some PR genius even floated the word, “newcomer.” Anything but “illegal.” Biden did not apologize to Laken Riley’s family for calling her “Lincoln Riley.”

Faced with mounting anger over the open border, Biden and his party will respond the same three ways all politicians do. They will try to hide their now-unpopular positions, shift the blame to the other party and stress different issues that favor them (particularly abortion this year). Only the last stratagem will work. Their words are already on video, and they won’t succeed in shifting the blame.

The most vulnerable Democrats are those who supported “defund the police” after George Floyd’s death in 2020. (To his credit, Joe Biden never did.) Their anti-cop positions have not aged well. They being replayed — in their own recorded words — in TV ads this year, even in deep-blue cities like Chicago.

These problems will cost Democrats elections at all levels. Voters:

  • are deeply concerned about both crime and illegal immigration;
  • see the two problems as intertwined;
  • believe progressive policies have made both problems worse;
  • don’t see Democrats acting aggressively to remedy the problems;
  • fear the costs are unsustainable and siphon funds from other, much-needed programs; and
  • don’t accept the Democrats’ argument that the problems are caused mainly by the Republicans’ rejection of a compromise immigration bill in 2024 since the problems began well before then

Republicans will run on these issues for the next eight months, even in progressive cities and states. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and hundreds of others are now overwhelmed by the influx of illegal immigrants and the costs of dealing with their social, medical and housing problems. Cities that proudly labeled themselves “sanctuaries” when it was a cheap virtue signal cannot escape the costly consequences now. Neither can the politicians who trumpeted those policies.

The issues won’t fade away. True, they won’t get much attention from MSNBC, the New York Times and Washington Post, but they will lead the local news every time an illegal immigrant is accused of murder, rape, armed robbery, violent assault, human trafficking or overdose deaths (which now top 100,000 a year). The victim’s parents and friends will be seen weeping, telling interviewers just how much they loved the ones they lost.

That’s a grim prospect for the country. The voters know it in their bones.