Twenty-four hours after an accused murderer led police to the body of slain college student Mollie Tibbetts in an Iowa cornfield, the Trump administration is using her death to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment—even saying her family has been “permanently separated.”
The White House claimed its hardline immigration policies would have prevented the murder, with Press Secretary Sarah Sanders calling Tibbetts’ death “an unfortunate reminder of why we need to strengthen our immigration laws.” The alleged killer’s lawyer said that his client was working in the United States legally.
But regardless of the actual legal status of Tibbetts’ accused killer, advocates for Iowa’s 150,000 immigrants are concerned about the White House’s rhetoric.
“Everyone I’ve spoken to first and foremost feels terrible that it happened in Iowa—that it would happen anywhere, and that it happened so close to us,” said Ann Naffier, legal director of Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors, a faith-based non-profit that provides free immigration legal services.
“Do we think that this is going to cause further problems in the community and further misunderstanding of people who are undocumented or who are documented? Of course—this kind of incident always causes that to happen.”
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 24-year-old Mexican national, was charged on Tuesday with the death of Tibbetts, a 20-year-old rising sophomore at the University of Iowa. At the time, law enforcement officials described him as an undocumented immigrant, prompting Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, to blast the “broken immigration system” as contributing to Tibbetts’ death.
In a statement, the Tibbetts family expressed thanks for the outpouring of support during the search for Mollie, and asked for “time to process our devastating loss and share our grief in private.”
The Trump administration responded by releasing a video pegged to Tibbetts’ death, titled “Permanently Separated,” featuring direct-to-camera addresses by family members of people who had been victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.
Allen Richards, Rivera’s attorney, submitted a filing on Wednesday denying that his client is in the U.S. illegally, noting that Rivera’s employer had verified his legal status and decrying “Sad and Sorry Trump,” whose administration’s remarks on Tibbetts’ death “will poison the entire possible pool of jury members.”
Rivera’s employee, however, has retracted past statements that he had used the E-Verify system to check Rivera’s immigration status, saying that he cannot be sure of his employee’s residency.
“The focus should be on the crime that was committed, not on the status of the person,” Rosa Mendoza, executive director of the Diversity Service Center of Iowa, told The Daily Beast. “Focusing on that status is definitely going to affect all of the communities in Iowa—it’s going to affect the whole nation.”
Mendoza noted that, for people of color in a state that is roughly 90 percent white, the racial undertones of the White House’s rhetoric regarding Tibbetts’ alleged killer will put Iowans of all legal statuses at risk.
“It’s definitely affecting our immigrant communities, the fear that has been growing that all people will be penalized because of this one person.”
To some advocates, the quick move by the White House to link Tibbetts’ death with its semi-halted policy of separating undocumented parents from their children at the southern border smacks of political opportunism.
“This is a heartbreaking death, and to politicize it and make it about immigration at a time when we need to come together as a community is wrong,” said Veronica Fowler, communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. “It’s sad that people are trying to polarize people and politicize a tragic situation.”
Fowler noted that undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes while in the United States than the average U.S. citizen, statistically, a trend that extends to naturalized immigrants as well.
But, Fowler noted, “we do not have a president who is necessarily fact-based, unfortunately.”
Anti-Latino hate crimes are on the rise, according to the FBI, which some immigration advocates credit to an increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric from the president.
“It’s not fair to take something that one person did and then hold that over an entire community or an entire population of people,” said Naffier. “Is it going to make our jobs harder? Of course.”
First and foremost, Iowa immigration groups said that their prayers—and those of their immigrant clients—are with the Tibbetts family.
“I really do think people are much more interested in expressing their support for the family,” Naffier said.