It took 34 days for investigators to find the body of 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts and arrest Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a farmworker who is allegedly an unauthorized immigrant, in her murder.
It took less than a day for Donald Trump’s White House to turn Tibbetts — against the wishes of her family members — into a political cause célèbre to bolster Trump’s immigration crackdown.
For 34 days, investigators searched for 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts. Yesterday, an illegal alien, now charged with first-degree murder, led police to the cornfield where her body was found.
The Tibbetts family has been permanently separated. They are not alone. pic.twitter.com/BBskwHEJoU
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) August 22, 2018
This isn’t just an off-the-cuff Trump tweet; it’s from the official White House account and features official-looking video. It’s deliberate political messaging, meant to turn a case that had attracted nationwide attention for weeks into an opportunity to reiterate Trump’s very favorite rhetorical theme: that many immigrants, specifically unauthorized immigrants, are criminals who want to kill you.
The man arrested for Tibbetts’s murder is Cristhian Bahena Rivera, a 24-year-old farmworker. Authorities have told reporters that Rivera is an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico, and that he was able to work on an Iowa farm because he presented a stolen ID. (Reports have indicated that Rivera passed a federal E-Verify check, using the government’s most sophisticated system to automatically check the immigration status of hirees; however, one of the owners of the farm, Dane Lang, said Wednesday that Rivera’s immigration status was instead checked through the Social Security Administration.)
Rivera’s lawyer claims that Rivera has legal status in the US. But he hasn’t specified what, exactly, Rivera’s legal status is. (In a Wednesday court filing, his support for the claim was that the brother of Rivera’s employer had vouched for his immigration status, but it’s not clear whether that is true or whether he simply vouched that Rivera had passed an immigration check.) A spokesperson for US Citizenship and Immigration Services told BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz Wednesday that “We have found no record in our systems indicating he has any lawful immigration status.”
Some of Tibbetts’s relatives have urged the public not to focus on Rivera’s immigration status. Tibbetts’s aunt posted on Facebook that “Evil comes in EVERY color”; her cousin attacked conservative activist Candace Owens on Twitter for “generaliz(ing) a whole population based on some bad individuals.”
But the fact that Tibbetts (a photogenic young white woman whose disappearance was already a national story) was allegedly killed by an unauthorized immigrant is exactly what made the White House’s interest in the story inevitable.
From the day he declared his presidential run in 2015 by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, Donald Trump has made fear of crime by unauthorized immigrants the central theme of his rhetoric and agenda.
He has cultivated relationships with “Angel Families” (families of people killed by unauthorized immigrants) and trotted them out at several events throughout his campaign and presidency, from the Republican National Convention in 2016 to the State of the Union in 2018. He has ranted about MS-13, helping to overhype the threat the Salvadoran-American street gang poses to white native-born Americans.
He created the Victims of Immigrant Crime Engagement office (VOICE), set up a hotline to report crimes by unauthorized immigrants, and even made an effort to issue a weekly report documenting all crimes by unauthorized immigrants against Americans — all despite the reality that immigrants aren’t disproportionately violent or criminal, and that being in the US without immigration status doesn’t necessarily mean you’re guilty of any federal crime (much less a felony) at all.
When Trump faced a potential government shutdown in January over Congress’s inability to address the status of the 700,000 or so young unauthorized immigrants at risk of losing their deportation protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Trump administration put out an ad saying that Democrats would be “complicit” in any murders conducted by unauthorized immigrants during the shutdown.
Most recently, in late June — as the Trump administration’s policy of family separation at the US-Mexico border was dominating the headlines — the White House convened a gathering of such relatives who had been “permanently separated” from their families, implying that the separation of thousands of families (many of them seeking asylum) was justified because it was an effort to save American families from seeing their loved ones killed.
It’s almost a cliché at this point for the White House to answer every criticism of its immigration policy, from its handling of DACA to its separation of families, with the fact that some unauthorized immigrants have killed some Americans. The use of Mollie Tibbetts as another excuse to hammer on this theme, despite the wishes of some family members, may seem callous.
But it’s also revealing that the White House is so insistent — that it thinks the death of a single white University of Iowa student allegedly at the hands of someone who lacked legal status justifies anything they might do in the name of keeping out other people who lack legal status.