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Latino students at UGA face hostility after police say suspect in Laken Riley’s death is undocumented


By Kaitlyn Schwanemann and Nicole Chavez, CNN

(CNN) — Alexa Doblado hasn’t felt safe at the University of Georgia since Laken Riley, a 22-year-old nursing student, was found dead on campus.

Riley was killed while on a jog at the university’s intramural fields, and her body was later found behind a nearby lake. In the days after Riley’s death, Doblado said she felt unsafe walking alone as a woman.

But then, as the news spread that the suspect in Riley’s killing was an undocumented Venezuelan migrant, Doblado said she became frightened for an entirely different reason.

Riley’s brutal killing has sparked a number of online threats against migrants and Latino students at the University of Georgia. CNN has not independently verified these posts, but screenshots of threatening messages have circulated among the school’s tight-knit Latino community, creating a climate of fear.

Doblado said she chose not to attend Monday’s campus vigil for Riley and another UGA student who died by suicide, out of fear that she’d be targeted for being Latina.

“We had to watch it from my couch like 30 minutes after it happened because we were scared that people would say something to harass us,” Doblado said.

“It’s almost like everybody else can lean on each other for support,” she added. “But Hispanic students, Latinx students, immigrant students slash international students couldn’t really feel the bond or the community anymore because it felt like everybody had kind of turned their backs on us.”

The day after the vigil, Doblado said she was harassed by a man while waiting for the bus on campus, after she said a few words in Spanish on the phone.

“I got off the phone and he turned to me, and he said, ‘Well, you should just go back to your own country,’” Doblado said, adding that the incident shook her, and she called her mom.

Other students told CNN about messages posted to YikYak, an anonymous social media app where college students can share posts with users in their vicinity, set off a “wave of bigotry.”

“Who’s [SIC] wants to go hunting tonight? I know a few places where these migrants hang out,” read one post that has since been deleted.

“That was the first [post] that kind of made everybody realize that it was a problem,” a Mexican American UGA student told CNN. The student asked to remain anonymous out of concern for their safety.

“It may have just been an empty threat – and it probably was given that people feel they can say whatever when their name is not attached to it and they’re behind the screen. But even so, it did cause unease and feelings of unsafety among the Latino students on campus, and I just don’t think that that’s ever okay,” the student added.

CNN contacted the University of Georgia to ask about the climate of fear among some of its Hispanic students. The university said in a statement that harassment and discrimination against “any member of the university community” is prohibited.

Yik Yak has faced criticism for harassment and threats that have occurred on the platform and the company shut down its operation in 2016.

But four years later, the company returned promising the same anonymity but with strict guidelines for content. Now, if a post gets more than five downvotes, it’s automatically deleted, according to the company’s website.

“On the new Yik Yak, it’s against the Community Guardrails to post bullying messages or use hate speech, make threats, or share anyone’s private information,” the company website says. The app specifically doesn’t allow content that “perpetuates the oppression of marginalized communities.”

CNN has reached out to Yik Yak for comment about recent posts targeting Latino students at UGA.

Other posts on X and YikYak reviewed by CNN called for violence against undocumented people and said that Riley’s death was the result of Athens, Georgia, being a sanctuary city.

“[At first] everyone seemed to be coming together on YikYak and on other platforms, saying we love each other, and we support each other … People were talking about – especially girls – walking and running together in groups for Laken,” the anonymous student said, adding that the tone on campus quickly shifted.

“It really should’ve just stayed focused on the people we lost this week.”

Grief compounded by fear

In 2022, Hispanic students made up nearly 7% of the student body at UGA’s campus, according to demographic data published by the university.

Several Latino student groups hosted an emotional support event on the same day as the vigil, so students could discuss their feelings as a community.

“We started off with a moment of silence for those who had passed, and a prayer to set the tone of what was going on,” Emmett Hincapie, a UGA graduate student of Puerto Rican and Colombian descent, told CNN.

“We were really trying to focus on some of these different complex emotions that come with loss, as well as now, all this rhetoric going around,” Hincapie said. During one activity, the students went around the room and each said a word that made them feel empowered.

The university’s Hispanic Student Association and Latinos Invested in the Students of Tomorrow addressed the hateful comments in a joint statement and called for unity on campus.

“The hurtful and discriminatory comments made following the tragic loss of one of our own have deeply shaken us all. Such grief should not be made use of for racism, hatred, or xenophobia,” the groups wrote.

“Now, more than ever, we must come together to reject hate in all its forms and create a campus community where every member feels safe, valued, and respected. We belong here just as much as any other.”

Scapegoating and silence

Jean-Luc Rivera, deputy executive director of the nonprofit Latino Community Fund of Georgia, said the rhetoric that has emerged since Riley’s killing is a result of scapegoating.

“A lot of folks are experiencing some very real and justified fear based on messages and narratives that are being spawned and calls to actions or blaming entire groups of people for this murder,” Rivera told CNN.

“Scapegoating makes some people feel better about themselves when it’s a solution to a problem that is complex. But you know, we absolutely reject that message. It dehumanizes immigrants and it separates us and it makes us feel weaker.”

Kimberly, a Salvadoran-Mexican American student at UGA, said she would feel safer on campus if the university released a statement acknowledging the issue. CNN agreed to only use her first name out of respect for her safety concerns.

“They should definitely speak on it and say that it’s not okay. Maybe they’re afraid it would take away from the bigger issue going on, but they should be saying that they see what’s going on instead of ignoring it,” she said.

In the wake of Riley’s death, the university has also announced new safety measures, including blue light call boxes, which allow students to call police by touching a button, lighting upgrades and increased funding for the campus police department.

Doblado said she thinks the university’s administration should be doing more to address the concerns and fear among Hispanic and Latino students.

“You need to acknowledge everybody’s pain. The fact that Latino students are processing this grief while on top of it, having to process this fear, it’s very, very scary,” she said.

“The fact that they’re staying silent is very, very upsetting, and it’s telling … And I love UGA, it’s a great school. But right now, it really sucks to be a Latino student here.”

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