"We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community," Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement. Vice President Mike Pence tweeted he was "heartbroken" by the news, making sure to mention that Cristhian Bahena Rivera, Tibbetts' alleged killer, is an "illegal immigrant." Meanwhile, Fox News and other pro-Trump media reported extensively on the news of the student's death gleefully using words like "illegal alien."
Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, was last seen going for a run on the evening of July 18 in Brooklyn, IA. Her body was found on Tuesday, more than a month later, confirming her family's worst fears. A preliminary autopsy released Thursday found that she died of "sharp force injuries."
After conservatives latched on to Rivera's immigration status, some members of Tibbetts' family pushed back against those using her death as a wedge in the immigration debate.
"I also know what Mollie stood for...and she would not approve," Tibbetts' friend Breck Goodman told CNN. "I don't want her death to be used as propaganda. I don't want her death to be used for more prejudice and for more discrimination, and I don't think she would want that, either." Her aunt Billie Jo Calderwood told the outlet, "I don't want Mollie's memory to get lost amongst politics."
But that hasn't stopped the Trump administration from exploiting the murder. In a video posted Wednesday, the White House pointed to Tibbetts' death as proof that the country needs the president's infamous wall and hardline immigration policies.
"Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family," Trump said in the video, seemingly referring to his controversial zero-tolerance policy, which led to the separation of hundreds of migrant families at the border. (More than 500 children still haven't been reunited with their families, despite a court-imposed deadline in July.)
"A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her," he continued. "We need the wall, we need our immigration laws changed, we need our border laws changed, we need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren’t going to do it."
"We need Republicans to do it" will be the Trump administration's rallying cry for the upcoming midterm election. It's not a reach to say that the right is planning on exploiting Tibbetts' death for political gain, since something similar happened with the death of another young white woman, Kate Steinle. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich even explicitly outlined the strategy in an interview with Axios: "If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble," he said. "If we can be blocked by Manafort-Cohen, etc., then the GOP could lose [the House] badly."
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the Trump administration and its allies are peddling the myth of the criminal immigrant as a way to accumulate political points. This is exactly what President Trump did the day he announced his campaign by calling Mexicans criminals and rapists.
"The immigration-crime relationship is a myth that should have been broken by now," Alex Piquero, PhD, a criminology professor and researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas, told Refinery29. "Evidence consistently and continuously shows that immigrants commit crimes, including serious crimes, at rates that are lower than individuals who were born in the United States. The evidence couldn't be clearer: If you were to look at homicides in the U.S., the overwhelming majority of those are not committed by immigrants or undocumented immigrants, but native-born Americans."
Dr. Piquero said that research over the past few decades — regardless of the type of data, whether it's self-reports, arrests, or convictions; location of the study; populations examined; and other factors — comes to the same conclusion. In fact, a huge proportion of the number of non-citizens who are incarcerated are in that situation because of nonviolent immigration-related offenses, such as unlawfully entering the U.S.
He also said that the myth of the criminal immigrant didn't start with Trump.
"The word 'immigrant' now in the United States is tied to Hispanics and Latinos. But if we go back to the beginning of the 20th century, there were government commissions that talked about immigrants 'bringing problems' to the United States," he said. "Those individuals weren't Hispanic. They were Germans, Jews, and Poles."
He added: "This narrative you hear today is the same anti-immigrant narrative you heard 120 years ago. It's 'insert a different immigrant group,' but it's the same narrative."
Regardless of how the Trump administration is framing Tibbetts' death, it's ultimately not about the country's immigration laws. It's about how we live in a society where saying "no" to a man can lead to a woman's death. According to the authorities, Rivera confessed to pursuing Tibbetts that evening in mid-July. He said he followed her in his car as she jogged next to the road, eventually getting out and running behind her. She threatened to call the police, which is when he said he allegedly "panicked," got angry, and "blacked out" until he saw her dead.
The pervasiveness of violence against women is the real pressing issue: In the U.S., nearly three women are killed every day by an intimate partner. We've seen other young women, such as Vanessa Marcotte and Karina Vetrano, also die at the hands of strange men while they were out exercising. Last month, 18-year-old Nia Wilson was fatally stabbed by a man in Oakland, CA. Earlier this week, a Colorado man was charged in relation to the murder of his pregnant wife and their two young daughters.
Exploiting Tibbetts' death for empty political points is a sham. If Trump and his allies truly cared about keeping women in the U.S. safe, they would stop peddling the myth of the criminal immigrant and inflating fears. Instead, they would push for the reauthorization of legislation created to address the issues of domestic and dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. They would not hire men accused of physically abusing their partners and defend them. They would not mock survivors of sexual assault. They would not defund initiatives that protect survivors of abuse.
If Trump truly cared about Tibbetts and all the women who have lost their lives to violence, he would work toward building a more equitable society for everyone. Instead, he's playing a long political con game. Tibbetts deserves better.