It did not take long after authorities in Iowa named a suspect in the killing of 20-year-old college student Mollie Tibbetts for her death to be turned into a political weight.
Seizing on the fact that the 24-year-old suspect police arrested, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, is a Mexican national who authorities said was in the country illegally, many Republicans, from President Trump on down, used the death to advocate for harsher immigration laws.
But Tibbetts family members have struck a different note, even in the emotionally tense days following the confirmation of her death last week, although they have not directly rebuked the president. During the eulogy her father, Rob Tibbetts, gave during her funeral Sunday, he highlighted his positive feelings for the local Hispanic community.
“The Hispanic community are Iowans. They have the same values as Iowans,” he said, according to the Des Moines Register. He said that during the nearly six weeks he spent in Iowa while authorities searched for his daughter, he ate at a number of Mexican restaurants. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re Iowans with better food.”
The line drew applause from the crowd of more than 1,000, the Register reported, and stood in contrast to the heated political debate about immigration as it related to Tibbetts’s death. Research has shown that immigrants — both those here illegally and not — are significantly less likely to commit crime than native-born citizens.
Tibbetts’s disappearance during a jog on July 18 drew weeks of media coverage that culminated with the disclosure Aug. 21 that authorities had found her body in a field. Just hours later, they announced that they had arrested Rivera and charged him with first-degree murder, saying that he had confessed to following Tibbetts and led them to her body. They said Rivera told them that he panicked after Tibbetts warned him she would call police as he pursued her and said his memory was blank until he realized he had put her in his trunk. He then dragged her to a field, where he left her face up and covered her with corn stalks, officials said. Rivera is being held in jail in lieu of a $5 million cash bond.
Although law enforcement officials said Rivera was undocumented, a lawyer who represented him at a hearing last week said that he was in the country legally. But the representatives from the farm where he worked said that the state photo ID and Social Security card that Rivera gave them when he applied for the job a few years ago were falsified.
Trump referred to Tibbetts’s death in a speech he gave on the day of the disclosure that her body was found, and the White House continued to push the sentiment the next day, in the form of statements made by White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and a video of Trump calling for a border wall and saying that Tibbetts had been “permanently separated from her family.” Republican officials from Iowa, such as Gov. Kim Reynolds and both of the state’s senators, have also criticized the country’s immigration laws.
Last week, Tibbetts’s aunt, Billie Jo Calderwood, released a statement that asked people to remember that “Evil comes in EVERY color.”
Rob Tibbetts, meanwhile, asked mourners to celebrate his daughter.
“Today, we need to turn the page. We’re at the end of a long ordeal,” he said. “But we need to turn toward life — Mollie’s life — because Mollie’s nobody’s victim. Mollie’s my hero.”