The 20-year-old's disappearance became a nationwide story, and then her tragic murder blew the narrative into a political firestorm. (Image via Time)
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The 20-year-old's disappearance became a nationwide story, and then her tragic murder blew the narrative into a political firestorm. (Image via Time)

But Trump is already using it to push his anti-immigration, xenophobic agenda.

Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old student from Brooklyn, Iowa, went for a run on July 18 and never came back. She was reported missing the next day, and for over a month, law enforcement, the FBI and the local Iowa community searched for any trace of her. On Aug. 21, the remains of Tibbetts were found in a cornfield.

The man charged with her murder is Christhian Bahena Rivera, a 24-year-old Mexican farmworker whose U.S. citizenship has been much debated.

Rivera’s lawyer has not yet disclosed his legal status; however, when providing information to an immigration reporter at BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services said, “We have found no record in our systems indicating he has any lawful immigration status.”

Despite the murkiness regarding Rivera’s citizenship status, President Donald Trump and his cabinet have turned the death of Tibbetts at the hands of a Mexican immigrant into a political talking point.

Just after Tibbetts’s body was found, the White House Twitter account penned a tweet that described Rivera as an “illegal alien” and called upon the pity of its readers by comparing the separation of the Tibbetts family to the separation at the border.

“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.”

Trump himself tweeted a similar, yet far more explicit, message.

“Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family. A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. 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.”

But the victim’s family does not seem to be impressed with the immediate transition of Tibbetts from beloved family member to conservative martyr.

In a statement, the Tibbetts family said, “At this time, our family asks that we be allowed the time to process our devastating loss and share our grief in private.”

The subtext of the request — that the family might be horrified at the thought of the recently deceased Tibbetts so quickly becoming political fodder for Trump and his supporters — became even more apparent when several family members released more specific statements.

When Turning Point USA Communications Director Candace Owens critiqued the hypocrisy of Democrats reacting strongly to the temporary separation of illegal immigrants at the border but not the murders of Tibbetts and another individual, Tibbetts’s cousin (@samlucasss on Twitter) quickly responded.

She said: “hey i’m a member of mollie’s family and we are not so f—ing small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals. now stop being a f—ing snake and using my cousins [sic] death as political propaganda. take her name out of your mouth.”

And Tibbetts’s aunt, Billie Jo Calderwood, expressed her own opinion to CNN. “I don’t want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics,” she said. Additionally, in a Facebook post, Calderwood implored readers to acknowledge reality. “Please remember, evil comes in EVERY color,” she wrote.

I grieve for Tibbetts. But I also grieve for her family, who barely had the chance to think back on her life before Trump turned her memory into the figurehead of xenophobia.

Writer Profile

Cameron Andersen

New York University
Cultural Anthropology and Gender & Sexuality

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