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There’s more to Mollie Tibbetts’ story than whether her killer was undocumented
The right has already concerned itself over Mollie Tibbett’s attacker being undocumented—but his status is under dispute.
After weeks of searching, the body believed to belong to 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts, a missing University of Iowa psychology junior, was found. Though the search for Tibbetts took more than a month, Republicans and right-wing trolls have wasted no time pinning her murder on Democrats for not having done more to keep undocumented immigrants, such as Tibbetts’ suspected murderer, out of the country.
The only problem? The documentation status of the man accused of murdering Tibbetts is unclear—according to his lawyer, he’s lived and worked in Iowa legally for seven years. Mitch Mortvedt, assistant director of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, says Homeland Security Investigations told him the man is undocumented.
According to the Los Angeles, the man who confessed to her murder, 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera, led police to her body on Tuesday after confessing to having kidnapped her in Brooklyn, Iowa. An affidavit attached to the criminal complaint against Rivera says that he had seen her running on July 18. He followed her in his car, then got out of his car and began running after her. Rivera told police that Tibbetts grabbed her phone and told him she was calling the police, which caused him to get angry. At that point, he says he blacked out, and next remembered seeing her earphones on his lap while sitting in the car.
Rivera said that once he woke up, he realized he had put Tibbetts in the trunk of his car. While taking her out, he saw blood on the side of her head. He then left Tibbetts’ body in a cornfield and covered it with corn leaves.
Charges against him were filed in district court in Poweshiek County, and his bail has been set at $1 million. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison without parole.
Tibbetts’ death is being mourned as a tragedy online, with many empathizing with a family whose daughter’s future had been cut too short, and had only been murdered for expressing discomfort that Rivera was running after her. However, in the day since Rivera led authorities to Tibbetts’ body, Republican politicians and pundits and right-wing trolls have begun using Tibbetts’ death to champion their own agenda.
Rivera, having lived in the Poweshiek County area for four to seven years and been previously employed at a company partially owned by a prominent Iowa Republican, has been reported as both documented and undocumented. Because of this reporting of and fixation upon his immigration status, the discovery of Tibbetts’ body has been overshadowed by right-wingers using her death as an example of the consequences for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and live in the U.S.
At a Charleston, West Virginia, rally on Tuesday, President Donald Trump called Tibbetts’ death “a disgrace,” stating Tibbetts was an “incredible, beautiful young woman.” And Vice President Mike Pence has commended law enforcement on Twitter for the apprehension of “an illegal immigrant, who’s now charged with first-degree murder.”
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in very sadly from Mexico. And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman,” Trump said at the rally. “Should have never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad, the immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting it changed but we have to get more Republicans.”
On Wednesday, Rivera’s lawyer Allen Richards asked for a gag order on his client’s case, writing that “sad and sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members,” according to the Des Moines Register. Richards’ gag order arguing against the publicity of the case was denied, though he says his client should only be referred to as a documented resident.
Iowa’s Gov. Kim Reynolds tweeted on Tuesday that the state is “angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community,” and vowed to do “all we can” to bring Tibbetts justice. Iowa Sen. Joni K. Ernst also tweeted that “too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws.”
As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry. We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie’s killer.
— Gov. Kim Reynolds (@IAGovernor) August 21, 2018
…We are thankful for hard work of @IAGovernor, federal, state & local law enforcement as they continue to find answers for Mollie’s family & American public, & bring the killer to justice.Too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws.
— Joni Ernst (@SenJoniErnst) August 21, 2018
Meanwhile, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich emailed Axios founder Mike Allen to make sure they cover Tibbetts’ story and help make Tibbetts “a household name by October.” Gingrich hopes the coverage will put Democrats in “deep trouble” and distract from Tuesday’s guilty verdicts against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and Trump’s former longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
Newt Gringich already plotting how Republicans can exploit Mollie Tibbets’ murder for political gain this November is disgusting. pic.twitter.com/6Tc1ce6Kj3
— Andrea González-Ramírez (@andreagonram) August 22, 2018
And the White House, too, has issued an advertisement about Tibbetts’ death, roping in her death with those of Americans who deaths involved undocumented immigrants. The ad invoked the theme of “permanent separation,” building off the criticism the Trump administration received regarding family separations at the border earlier this summer.
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
Across Twitter, other right-wing users, politicos and trolls alike, are calling for Democrats and general allies of immigrants to display their outrage and stand up for Tibbetts by standing against undocumented immigrants. Some have blamed Tibbetts’ death on Democrats themselves for not doing more to secure the border from people crossing into the U.S. unauthorized, despite Rivera’s lawyer later disputing his client’s immigration status. It’s a narrative that, while honest about the emotion surrounding Tibbetts’ death, targets all undocumented immigrants indiscriminately while seemingly ignoring violence committed by and against Americans.
— Joey Cortese (@JoeyCortese45) August 21, 2018
Mollie Tibbits was killed by an illegal immigrant. There will be ZERO outrage from Democrats and the spineless celebrities who march to their orders because they need open borders for votes.
How many more AMERICAN lives is the left willing to sacrifice for elections?
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) August 21, 2018
Mollie Tibbetts would be alive today if Democrats didn’t fight for and allow illegal immigration at every turn. Her beautiful life was stolen because Democrat’s choose to protect illegal immigrants over American Citizens. When you vote, vote to make sure the next Mollie is safe.
— Robby Starbuck (@robbystarbuck) August 21, 2018
Enough is enough. All murdered by illegal immigrants: Mollie Tibbetts, Kate Steinle, Grant Ronnebeck, Ronald Da Silva… the list goes on and on. Let’s not sit back and let it continue.
— Madison Gesiotto (@madisongesiotto) August 21, 2018
Leftists boycotted, screamed, and cried when illegal immigrants were temporarily separated from from their parents.
What will they do for Mollie Tibbetts?
What did they do for Kate Steinle?
They will NEVER see their parents again.
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) August 21, 2018
However, many online, including members of Tibbetts’ family, have spoken out against anti-immigration rhetoric.
hey i’m a member of mollie’s family and we are not so fucking small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals. now stop being a fucking snake and using my cousins death as political propaganda. take her name out of your mouth. https://t.co/xxZNBF0Uv9
— sam (@samlucasss) August 22, 2018
Others are refocusing the conversation on what happened to Tibbetts before she was abducted. According to Rahn, it’s unclear why Rivera decided to target Tibbetts.
“I can just tell you it seems that he followed her and seemed to be drawn to her on that particular day and for whatever reason he chose to abduct her,” Rivera previously said.
However, women who have read the articles describing Tibbetts’ death have filled in the blanks between Rivera following Tibbetts, and Tibbetts threatening to call the police: it appears that she didn’t want Rivera following her, at the very least, and was murdered after telling him so. Rivera didn’t go after Tibbett because he’s an immigrant, other commenters have pointed out, but because violence towards women is an acceptable, normalized reaction to rejection.
Mollie Tibbetts was murdered because she told a man to leave her alone while she was jogging. But because he was an illegal immigrant you all wanna advocate for border control instead of against the root of the problem: violence towards women for saying no
— Jordyn Tieman (@jordyntieman) August 22, 2018
Btw, men who want to senselessly kill a woman are not stopped by a border. This man likely would have killed a woman no matter where he was living, and that woman would have mattered just as much as Mollie Tibbetts does. Closing borders does not prevent violence against women. pic.twitter.com/HvwCSX4PWw
— Abby Honold (@abbyhonold) August 21, 2018
What happened to Mollie Tibbetts is a tragedy. It’s shameful & dishonest for the Trump admin to pretend her death is part of a larger trend of undocumented men killing women.
Trump only cares about violence against women when he can use it to score political points. Period.
— Melissa Jeltsen (@quasimado) August 21, 2018
Mollie Tibbetts was not killed because of the inherent wickedness of immigrants.
She was killed because a man felt entitled to her & she said no.
It happens all the time. It knows no age or race.
I'm sure people will start clutching their televised pearls over that any time.
— Catherynne Valente (@catvalente) August 22, 2018
Mollie Tibbetts was murdered b/c she told a man to leave her alone while she was jogging. Her murderer happens to be undocumented. This isn’t about border security. This is about toxic masculinity. Mollie Tibbetts lost her life b/c a man couldn’t take her saying no. Full stop.
— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) August 22, 2018
On Reddit, one of the more popular threads on r/TwoXChromosomes speculates about Tibbett’s death and has received more than 7,800 in upvotes and more than 2,000 comments. The thread is titled “Mollie Tibbetts was murdered because she threatened to call the cops on a man who was catcalling her.”
“I’m so angry, saddened, and frustrated right now. Mollie was just a normal girl living her life and this asshole (that I REFUSE to name) ended it because she didn’t react how he wanted her to,” the original poster wrote. The writer elaborated that while people catcalling is often not taken seriously, it can be “unnerving… [and] terrifying.”
“Her name was Mollie. She was a girl living her life and she didn’t owe you a damn thing, you bastard. Not her time, or her acknowledgment, or even a fucking smile,” the poster concluded.
Police and news outlets have not characterized Tibbett’s death as de facto catcalling or street harassment, though Rivera admitted to pursuing her in his vehicle before he got out and started running alongside her. Many posters have empathized with Tibbetts’ death, recalling moments they were previously accosted or harassed by random men while in public.
“I cannot deal with how many people I’ve seen use the fact that he was an illegal immigrant to push their political agendas and completely ignore the fact that THIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN HAPPENING TO WOMEN,” one commenter posted on the thread. “They’re completely mowing over her death and who she was as a person. This story just happens to support their claims. It makes me feel sick.”
Samantha Grasso is a former IRL staff writer for the Daily Dot with a reporting emphasis on immigration. Her work has appeared on Los Angeles Magazine, Death And Taxes, Revelist, Texts From Last Night, Austin Monthly, and she has previously contributed to Texas Monthly.