Vulnerable Democratic senator backs Laken Riley immigration bill ahead of tough re-election in red state

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Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is backing an immigration bill named after deceased Georgia college student Laken Riley ahead of a tough re-election battle, despite helping to block the measure previously.

“Keeping Montana safe is my top priority, which is why I’ve repeatedly called on the Biden Administration and Congress to do more to secure the southern border and have worked to get the brave men and women in law enforcement what they need to keep criminals off our streets,” the Montana Democrat said in a statement. 

He explained that his support for the bill came “After hearing from law enforcement officers across Montana.” 


Laken Riley in a medical coat in a grassy field

Laken Riley poses for a photo posted to Facebook. Riley, a nursing student at the University of Georgia, was found dead near a lake on campus on Thursday, February 22, 2024. (Allyson Phillips/Facebook)

The legislation would require Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain illegal immigrants who have committed theft, burglary, larceny, or shoplifting offenses. 

Riley was an Augusta University nursing student who was found dead on the University of Georgia’s campus in February. An illegal immigrant named Jose Antonio Ibarra was arrested and charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, kidnapping, hindering a 911 call and concealing the death of another. 

The 22-year-old’s death made national headlines and prompted calls from primarily Republican lawmakers to strengthen the southern border and tighten U.S. immigration policy. 


Sen. Jon Tester

Tester voted against a similar measure as an amendment to a $1.2 trillion spending package. (Anna Moneymaker)

Republicans were able to force a vote on a modified version of the Laken Riley Act in March in the form of an amendment to a $1.2 trillion spending package, which was struck down along party lines — with Tester voting against it. 

Afterward, a spokesperson for Tester told the local Montana outlet the Belgrade News that “Senator Tester supports the Laken Riley Act and will vote yes if it is brought to the floor for a standalone vote.” 

However, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is unlikely to bring the Laken Riley Act to the floor.

During negotiations for amendment votes ahead of the supplemental package’s consideration, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and other Republicans accused Tester of being unwilling to vote on immigration-related measures due to his precarious electoral position. 

Migrants storm the gate at the border in El Paso

The border is a top issue for voters across the country. (James Breeden for New York Post / Mega)

Tester rejected those claims. 


Cotton reacted to news Tester had backed the Laken Riley Act on Thursday night, writing on X, “Sen. Tester voted for the open-border policies that let Riley’s killer in. He voted against this very bill a few weeks ago. Montanans who want secure borders—and not a phony election-year conversion—should support [GOP Senate candidate Tim Sheehy].”

Asked about the previous amendment vote, a spokesperson for Tester told Fox News Digital that claims he reversed his stance on the bill “are patently false,” pointing to his past commitment to supporting a standalone bill. 

Tim Sheehy and Jon Tester

Republican Montana Senate candidate and former Navy SEAL Tim Sheehy (left) and Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester (right). (Tim Sheehy For Montana/ Getty Images)

The spokesperson called the claims “another desperate attempt to politicize the border instead of fixing it.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee accused the vulnerable Montana Democrat of flip-flopping after he officially became a co-sponsor of the bill. 


“Jon Tester’s support for Joe Biden’s open borders agenda is hurting his reelection campaign, so he is flip-flopping. Montanans can’t trust Two-Faced Tester,” said NRSC spokeswoman Maggie Abboud. 

Tester’s race in Montana is considered one of the most competitive in the country, with nonpartisan political handicapper the Cook Political Report rating it a “Toss Up.” 

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