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How Mollie Tibbetts’ death became part of the immigration debate

When police discovered Tuesday the body of Mollie Tibbetts, a University of Iowa student who had been missing for weeks, it shocked her small Iowa town.

For conservatives, news of Tibbetts’ death — particularly that police had arrested an undocumented immigrant from Mexico in connection with her murder — quickly became the latest evidence that the nation’s immigration laws and border security are weak, an argument they have repeated often in the runup to the 2018 midterms.

President Donald Trump used the case to promote his administration’s hardline stance against illegal immigration at a Tuesday rally in West Virginia, and again in a video released from the White House’s Twitter account on Wednesday.

Here’s a look why it’s become part of the national debate on immigration.

What happened

On Tuesday, police formally charged Christhian Bahena Rivera with first-degree murder in Tibbetts’ death after identifying him on a home surveillance video, following Tibbetts in his car. He directed authorities to a farm field southeast of Brooklyn, Iowa, where a body believed to be Tibbetts’ was found, court documents said.

When local law enforcement made the announcement Tuesday, officials referred to the 24-year-old suspect as an “illegal alien.” Conservative circles online and on-air zeroed in on that description as a way of pointing to what they described as a growing body of evidence that immigrants here illegally carry out violent crimes.

Fox News, along with other conservative media outlets, dedicated long periods of its broadcasts to covering the story, often linking the murder case to insufficient U.S. immigration laws. Their coverage aired on the same day a jury in Virginia found former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort guilty and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, pleaded guilty to federal charges in New York.

The president emphasized Rivera’s immigration status during Tuesday’s rally in Charleston, West Virginia.

“You saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful woman,” Trump said of Tibbetts. “Should have never happened. … The immigration laws are such a disgrace. We’re getting them changed.”

Because the case has become a focal point for the president and Republicans, national media outlets have taken notice.

Among the strongest rebukes to how the news of Tibbetts’ death has been handled are those that come directly from her family members.

“Please remember, Evil comes in EVERY color,” Billie Jo Calderwood, Mollie’s aunt, said in a post on Facebook.

Sam Lucas, who told the Washington Post she was a distant cousin of Tibbetts’, responded to conservative activist’s Candace Owens tweets that linked immigrants to crime, saying, “hey i’m a member of mollie’s family and we are not so f*****g small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals.”

She added: “now stop being a f*****g snake and using my cousins death as political propaganda. take her name out of your mouth.”

Why focus on this case?

A day after authorities formally charged Rivera, the White House tweeted out a new video on its official account, saying that the “Tibbetts family has been permanently separated. They are not alone.”

The video shows several parents looking into the camera, saying that their children were killed by immigrants. At the end, they’re edited to say in succession: “My separation is permanent.” The video, in effect, appears to push back on criticism of the administration’s practice of separating migrant families as a result of its “zero tolerance” policy.

Several sitting Republicans and those seeking office this fall have used the case to paint Democrats as weak on borders and security.

“Mollie would be alive if our government had taken immigration enforcement seriously years ago,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote on Twitter.

“The lack of leadership & courage by open border senators like @JeffFlake, @SenJohnMcCain, & #amnesty advocate Martha McSally contribute to these senseless deaths,” Kelli Ward ,a former Arizona state senator who is now seeking a U.S. Senate seat, wrote on Twitter. “We need true leadership in the Senate to #BuildTheWall & secure our borders!”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich emailed Axios to see if the online publication was covering the story, and commented on the political stakes at play: “If Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble. If we can be blocked by Manafort-Cohen, etc., then GOP could lose [the House] badly.”

Trump, before Tibbetts’ death, and particularly during his presidential campaign, has appeared on stage with several families whose relatives have been killed by people who entered the U.S. illegally. They identify as “angel families” or “Angel Moms.” At events with the angel families, including the latest in June, the president says these people are “permanently separated” from their children.

Video by PBS NewsHour

“You hear the other side, you never hear this side,” Trump said at his June event.

What data tells us about crime and immigration

The idea that illegal immigration causes more crime has been disproven by several different studies.

A 2015 study of Texas Department of Public Safety data showed that native-born Americans had higher rates of arrests and convictions than those here illegally — something that holds true across different types of crimes, the study, from the libertarian Cato Institute, said.

Another study published in March shows that, contrary to a popular conservative talking point, areas with larger populations of undocumented immigrants have lower crime rates.

But, as FactCheck.org has pointed out, there is a lack of readily available statistics that breaks down crime rates by immigration status. Part of this is because local law enforcement doesn’t always distinguish when a crime is committed by legal or undocumented immigrants.

At the same time, the statistical conclusions that point to immigrants committing fewer crimes is also not discussed when the issue is pushed by conservatives activists, pundits and the administration.

“It’s Mollie Tibbetts (today), and it could be your daughter, your sister, your friend tomorrow,” conservative commentator Tomi Lahren said in an interview with Fox News.

Where’s the case now?

Cristhian Rivera, 24, accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, is led from the courtroom after making his initial appearance on a charge of first-degree murder during at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, U.S., August 22, 2018. Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette/Pool via REUTERS - RC1718341720

Cristhian Rivera, 24, accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, is led from the courtroom after making his initial appearance on a charge of first-degree murder during at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa. Photo by Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette via Reuters

Preliminary autopsy results released Thursday confirmed the body found by police in the cornfield was Tibbetts’ and that the manner of death was “homicide resulting from multiple sharp force injuries.”

Officials said earlier this week that Rivera has lived in the state for at least four years, something his employer Yarrabee Farms confirmed.

Rivera’s lawyer, Allen Richards, also requested a gag order in the case Wednesday, saying that the government has falsely said that his client has been in the state illegally. “Sad and sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members,” he said. A judge denied the request, Des Moines Register reported.

Federal agencies maintain that Rivera was in the country illegally. A spokesperson for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services told the PBS NewsHour in a statement that a “search of records by USCIS revealed Rivera did not make any DACA requests nor were any grants given. We have found no record in our systems indicating he has any lawful immigration status.”

The Iowa Department of Transportation also said, after reviewing its records, the agency can confirm “that no Iowa driver’s license or credential was issued to Cristhian Bahena Rivera, either under that name or any alternate name bearing his likeness and we have no license history for him.”

In a news conference Wednesday, Dane Lang, co-owner of Yarrabee Farms, told reporters that “our employee is not who he said he was,” adding that it appeared that Rivera provided them with false information. Reporters asked for any fake name the suspect did give, but Lang declined to provide that information.

When asked if it was fair for the president to politicize Tibbetts’ death, Dane’s father Craig Lane said he wasn’t going to comment on that.

“He’s the president of the United States. And I respect the president of the United States regardless of the party and I won’t say any more than that,” he said.

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