The ongoing search for Mollie Tibbetts, the 20-year-old college student from Brooklyn, Iowa who went missing in July, came to a devastating end on August 21 when police found her body in a cornfield. Authorities charged 24-year-old undocumented immigrant Cristhian Rivera with her murder.
Tibbetts’ case—and other past cases like it— easily capture the attention of the American public. Mollie Tibbetts was a white, beautiful, young college student who was taken from a sleepy, rural town that could be a stand-in for a number of small American towns
For weeks, Tibbetts’ bubbly, smiling face was scattered across social media feeds as her search reached desperate levels. For many of us, she seemed like someone we knew – a young girl who loved running, Harry Potter, and her family Perhaps she reminded you of your daughter, sister or friend. Having recently graduated college myself, I couldn’t help but relate to Tibbetts. She seemed like someone I would have been friends. When I heard about her death, I was hurt but took solace knowing that Tibbetts’ family could shrink away from the spotlight and grieve in peace now that the grueling search was over.
Yet her family was not treated with such decency.
Hours after authorities charged Cristhian Bahena Rivera—an illegal immigrant—with first-degree murder for the death of Mollie Tibbetts, certain right-wing news outlets like Fox News and Breitbart began spinning her story, turning her death into a rally cry for stronger border security and mass deportation of illegals. As the news cycle progressed, headlines became more fixated on the immigrant status of her killer than the loss of the young woman.
“Illegal immigration kills Americans,” conservative pundit Tomi Lahren said on Fox News. “It’s Mollie Tibbetts (today), and it could be your daughter, your sister, your friend tomorrow.”
Some in far-right circles on Twitter are trying to turn Tibbetts into a martyr for their anti-immigrant cause. President Trump was also quick to politicize her death, alluding to it during his rally in West Virginia:
“You heard about today with the illegal alien coming in, very sadly from Mexico, and you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman,” Trump said. “It should’ve never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad, the immigration laws are such a disgrace.”
This is shameful. Not only is right-wing media exploiting the death of a young girl for its own interests, but even the president is peddling claims about immigrants that are false and have been proven so time and time again.
In 2013, Pew Research Center found that immigrants are significantly less likely to commit crimes compared to U.S.-born citizens. Similarly, in 2018, the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute concluded that at the incarceration rate for native-born Americans is 1.53 percent, compared to 0.85 percent for undocumented immigrants and 0.47 percent for legal immigrants.
And in Texas (the only state to keep record of the number of convictions of illegal immigrants for specific crimes), the rate of homicide convictions per 100,000 illegal immigrants was 44 percent lower than that of native-born Americans in 2016.
So unlike what Tomi Lahren would have you believe, immigrants are not more dangerous or more likely to be criminals than anyone else. They are actually less likely to end up behind bars compared to their native-born peers.
Yes, the death of Molly Tibbetts is awful—and yes, her killer may have been an illegal immigrant. But one atrocious crime committed at the hands of one illegal immigrant cannot and should not be used as proof that all immigrants dangerous. The truth is that most immigrants come here to create better lives for themselves, and they are usually not criminals who wish to do you harm.
What is most unfortunate about this story is that the death of Mollie Tibbetts is being reduced to a talking point in the immigration debate. Mollie Tibbetts should not be remembered for how she died or for who killed her, but for how she lived and who she was.