ATHENS, Ga. — After the suspect in the slaying of nursing student Laken Riley was revealed to be an undocumented immigrant from Venezuela, students at the University of Georgia and Latino organizations have made pleas against hateful rhetoric directed at Hispanics and immigrants.

The Latino Community Fund Georgia said that it has been “monitoring instances of folks that have been saying that they want to go ‘hunting for immigrants,’” which Gilda Pedraza, executive director and founder of the group, described as “damaging narratives” and “a very real-life threat.”

Pedraza said she has personally seen threatening social media posts that appear to be from local residents. The comments have so scared some of her group’s member organizations and Latino community leaders that they’ve removed their contact information from their websites. “People just don’t feel safe,” she said. “We are trying to really prevent the negative narratives.”

In a campus of nearly 41,000 students, close to 7% of the student population at the University of Georgia identifies as Hispanic.

“It’s horrible that it is even a possibility that people would be targeting us for what one person did. If we did that to every group of people who did something wrong, we’d never have any peace,” Laura Figueroa, a junior at the University of Georgia, told NBC News. “It should not happen in this really sad and scary situation. All I feel is sadness.”

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 booked in the Clarke County Jail 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, Republican leaders including former President Donald Trump and House Speaker Mike Johnson have pointed to Riley’s killing to push for hard-line immigration policies.

In Georgia, Insurance Commissioner John King, a Republican who is Latino, called for tougher state laws in an opinion piece Sunday. The suspect’s immigration status also prompted Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp , a Republican, to publicly blame Riley’s death on the Biden administration’s border and immigration policies, stating in a speech Monday that the system’s failure on multiple levels “has resulted in a young woman’s death.”

In response to an email from NBC News, Kemp’s press secretary Garrison Douglas stated it’s “not only beyond absurd but an insult to the intelligence of the American people to classify calls for the Biden administration to secure the U.S. Southern Border, something a significant majority of Americans support, as anti-immigrant.”

The Republican calls for more border security have elicited responses from Latino Democrats like state Sen. Jason Esteves, who stated on Twitter that “those who bring up border security should take that up with Trump, who recently whipped Republicans in D.C. into shelving a bipartisan border security bill.”

Esteves also said that Laken Riley’s family should be able to “grieve without being used for cheap political points.”

A call against ‘generalizations’

The Latino Community Fund Georgia published a statement over the weekend calling for “a full investigation that will bring justice to her family and the community in Athens” and cautioning that nationality, race or immigration status “should not be used to make generalizations, assumptions, or accusations about large groups of people.”

“We firmly reject any comments, or statements that imply immigrants and/or Latinos are dangerous or a problem to our communities,” their statement reads.

Pedraza said she thought “the statement would be a proactive step” but, after the group published it, they had to close comments on the post on social media because it “received lots of hateful commentary,” she said.

On-campus organizations serving Latino students at the university released two open letters over the weekend expressing how deeply troubled they are to “witness this heartbreaking incident exploited as a platform for racism and xenophobia within our campus community.”

“While we unequivocally condemned the heinous crime committed against a fellow peer, we are equally appalled and outraged by the unjust targeting and harassment endured by the entire Latino community in its aftermath,” one of the letters reads.

On Monday, students were coming and going to class as usual but, for most, last week’s tragedy was still on their minds as they moved around the sprawling campus.

“We all are just sad and horrified that we lost a classmate,” Sophia Diaz, a junior transfer student, said.

“That’s sort of the focus, getting over the tragedy,” sophomore Lourdes Martin said. “You don’t expect something so tragic to happen in your campus.”

Martin said that while some people try to “turn a bad thing into a reason to do other bad things … right now, it just seems like everyone is really heartbroken.”

Hispanic student associations at the University of Georgia will be hosting emotional support events to help Latino students who may be feeling targeted or vulnerable at this time in order to provide “a secure environment for open dialogue and promoting a feeling of togetherness among attendees,” according to a university email shared with NBC News.

Barbara Machado-Requena, a student of Venezuelan heritage attending the university, told Telemundo Atlanta, “I hope people don’t think this man represents our community.”

Machado-Requena said she is not only “very sad and frustrated” over assumptions that could be made against her community but also about the fact that a space is frequented by many on campus may not be as safe as she thought.

Curtis Bunn reported from Athens, and Nicole Acevedo from New York City.

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