It’s taken less than 24 hours for a murder victim to become a right-wing, partisan meme.
Authorities in Iowa Tuesday charged a 24-year-old man with the first-degree murder of 20-year-old student Mollie Tibbetts, who had been missing since July 18. Cristhian Rivera, who worked at a local farm near Brooklyn, Iowa, led investigators to a secluded cornfield on Monday, where police uncovered Tibbetts’ body. An autopsy is pending.
Tibbetts, who was studying psychology at the University of Iowa, was last seen leaving her boyfriend’s house in Brooklyn last month to go for a run. Authorities questioned more than 500 people about her disappearance before finally catching a break in the case a fortnight ago.
According to the Washington Post, investigators found someone with a security system while canvassing an area where Tibbetts liked to run. That led them to a Black Chevrolet Malibu which was eventually traced to Rivera, whose alibi quickly unraveled.
Tibbetts’ tragic death has shocked her small Iowa town. Her friends and family described her as a young woman who always wanted to help others, who was a natural at working with children and was a voracious reader from a young age — especially of Harry Potter.
“There wasn’t a mean bone in her body,” her former principal Katie Murphy told the Des Moines Register. “You couldn’t help but just love her.”
The case seized the national spotlight this week, largely due to the fact that Rivera is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who had been living in the United States for four years. That profile unsurprisingly captured the attention of President Trump and fellow Republicans who have sought to falsely paint undocumented immigrants more broadly as violent offenders, criminals, and “animals.”
During a rally in West Virginia Tuesday night, Trump, under pressure to divert attention from his own legal woes, cited Tibbetts’ case to argue for tougher immigration laws.
“You saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman,” Trump said. “Should never have happened. Illegally in our country.”
“It should have never happened…the immigration laws are such a disgrace”: President Trump appears to refer to Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts’ murder. An undocumented man was charged with her killing today. https://t.co/W39wCNuPot pic.twitter.com/2oZbEYWtW7
— CBS News (@CBSNews) August 21, 2018
Trump’s comments were quickly repurposed by other Republicans, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), who tweeted Tuesday night, “Mollie would have been alive if our government had taken immigration seriously years ago.”
Prayers for Tibbetts family & all who knew & loved Mollie. Lots of questions—where did this illegal alien work? what was his work status—but one thing is sure: Mollie would be alive if our government had taken immigration enforcement seriously years ago. https://t.co/JScrv7aD5P
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) August 21, 2018
The GOP’s rhetoric on Tibbetts’ death seems to contrast its usual response to young people being murdered, which is to offer “thoughts and prayers” and make sure no one rushes to politicize the tragedy. Following the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Parkland Florida in October 2017 and February 2018 respectively, the voices that rushed to blame Tibbetts’ death on illegal immigration were silent about calls for gun control — despite the desperate pleas of survivors.
“Until we know more about the circumstances and the facts, I think it’s hard to draw conclusions,” Cotton said during an interview with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt last October, following the deadly Las Vegas shooting. “…I think we have to gather all [the] facts before we make any conclusions.”
Following another shooting last November, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, which left 26 dead, Trump also criticized those jumping to argue for increased gun control. “I think that mental health is your problem here,” he said. “…This isn’t a guns situation.”
Conservatives have also largely ignored a crucial detail reported by the Associated Press, which is that Rivera had been employed at the farm of Craig Lang, an Iowa GOP official, for the last four years, and had also reportedly passed the government’s e-verify system, which scours Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Department of Homeland Security records.
“This individual has worked at our farms for four years, was vetted through the government’s E-Verify system, and was an employee in good standing,” Yarrabee Farms stated following news of Tibbetts’ death. A representative for the company told the AP 20-year-old Tibbetts’ death was “shocking.”
While certain figures spent the better half of Wednesday morning targeting the broader immigrant community for Tibbetts’ death, many of them failed to pick up on the growing cesspool of angry, far-right voices crowding much of Tibbetts’ still-active social media feeds.
A post on Tibbetts’ Twitter, for instance, is now littered with dozens of replies mocking how she was killed by a Hispanic man. Posters on 4chan’s /pol/ board — generally a den of racism and sexism, and a key part of the far-right online ecosystem — have also picked up the case.
Neither Trump nor Cotton were wrong in describing Tibbetts’ death this week as heinous, or in believing that Rivera should face justice for his alleged crimes. But outrage at the larger immigrant community in the wake of the 20-year-old’s murder is misplaced, according to a woman who identified herself as a member of Tibbetts’ extended family.
“We are not so […] small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals,” Samantha Lucas, who says she is Tibbetts’ second cousin and has communicated with Tibbetts’ immediate family, tweeted Wednesday morning, in response to right-wing commentator (and frequent Infowars guest) Candance Owens.
“Stop being a fucking snake and using my cousins death as political propaganda,” she added. “Take her name out of your mouth.”