Last month, I joined about 15,000 other cyclists in a weeklong bike ride across Iowa. We rode past cornfields and through small towns, which welcomed us with pork barbecue, slices of pie and all the trappings of a rolling state fair.
Every so often, alongside the lemonade stands or in people’s yards, I spotted posters. They featured the smiling face of a young woman named Mollie Tibbetts. She was missing, the posters said. Please call with information.
Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, went out for a run on July 18 in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa, and never returned. A massive search was on. Her family held out hope she’d been kidnapped and would be found alive.
Iowa law enforcement officials announced the worst on Tuesday morning. A woman’s body, believed to be that of Tibbetts, had been found buried beneath corn stalks in a field near the town where she’d grown up. A 24-year-old man named Cristhian Bahena Rivera led police to the site. He’s been charged with Tibbetts’ murder.
Rivera is a native of Mexico who is believed to have been living in the area for four to seven years. He worked at a dairy farm. And he is in the United States without papers.
And with that last detail, Tibbetts’ death has instantly become a red-hot wedge that President Donald Trump and his supporters are wielding to their political advantage this midterm election cycle (and will surely continue to use long after the race).
The seal-the-border crowd has drawn Tibbetts into its fold and is using her name and her tragic death to benefit its cause.
By Tuesday evening, the killing of the college student, allegedly at the hands of an undocumented immigrant, was the biggest story on FOX News. Never mind the blockbuster courtroom developments that same day that resulted in Trump’s personal lawyer and his former campaign chairman being convicted of multiple felony crimes.
Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, quickly weighed in with a statement of her own. “We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community,” Reynolds said, as though her state’s economy doesn’t rely on immigrants ― legal or otherwise ― to prop up its agricultural and manufacturing sectors.
Trump himself tossed the bone to a crowd of supporters at a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday night. “You heard about today, with the illegal alien coming in from, very sadly, from Mexico,” he said. “And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman.”
A rational response would be, “What’s your point?” As the president and his administration remind us constantly, thousands of undocumented immigrants enter the United States every year. But what this administration repeatedly fails to mention is that multiple studies have shown they are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. The number who commit serious violent crimes is smaller yet.
But Trump is not a rational leader, and these are not rational times. The noxious group known as FAIR, or the Federation for American Immigration Reform, keeps a running list of “serious crimes by illegal aliens.” Trump in June attempted to deflect attention from his administration’s policy of separating parents and children at the border by inviting family members of Americans who’d been killed by undocumented immigrants to the White House.
Suddenly, every immigrant who has entered the United States without papers is a potential menace. They are not human beings with joys, sorrows and stories; they are felons in the making.
And now, just as special counsel Robert Mueller’s vise of an investigation tightens, and pundits warn of Democratic gains in November, current events have served up Mollie Tibbetts and Cristhian Bahena Rivera. The beautiful, quintessentially wholesome Iowa girl allegedly murdered by the illegal alien from Mexico. (Who, by the way, worked on a dairy farm owned by the family of a prominent Iowa Republican.)
Suddenly, every immigrant who has entered the United States without papers is a potential menace. They are not human beings with joys, sorrows and stories; they are felons in the making. Round them up. Build the wall. There is nothing Trump would rather talk about.
In her death, Mollie Tibbetts is quickly becoming an unwitting tool of the haters. It doesn’t matter what she thought about undocumented immigrants or immigrants in general. It doesn’t matter that members of her extended family have asked that her killing not be politicized. The seal-the-border crowd has drawn Tibbetts into its fold and is using her name and her tragic death to benefit its cause. They will distill her memory into that of the young woman in Iowa murdered by the undocumented immigrant, when in fact she was so much more than that.
Hours after police found her body, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich told Axios that “if Molly Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble.”
That’s the plan, and it’s reprehensible. Fair-minded Americans must push back against this cynical ploy to use a family’s tragedy to rip a new seam in an already divided nation.
Barbara Shelly is a freelance journalist in Kansas City and a long-time observer of Missouri politics.