Exploiting a murder to fuel their hate

August 27, 2018

Nicole Colson reports on the anti-immigrant scapegoating following the murder of Mollie Tibbetts — and how her family is speaking out against it.

“PLEASE REMEMBER, evil comes in every color.”

Billie Jo Calderwood, the aunt of murdered University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, had a message for Donald Trump and everyone else who would use her niece’s death for bigoted political ends: Stop exploiting their family’s tragedy for anti-immigrant hate.

The news that the body of the 20-year-old had been found and an arrest made set off a calculated wave of scapegoating when authorities alleged that the man charged in her killing, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, is an undocumented immigrant.

With the coming midterm elections firmly in mind, conservative pundits and politicians, from Trump on down, claimed that Tibbetts’ killing is proof that “illegal immigrants” pose a threat to U.S. citizens and shows the need for a further crackdown.

Mourners attend a church service for Mollie Tibbetts in Brooklyn, Iowa
Mourners attend a church service for Mollie Tibbetts in Brooklyn, Iowa

Trump, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and a host of Republican politicians renewed calls to “build the wall” — and blamed the left in particular for Tibbetts’ death. Trump told a crowd in Ohio on August 24: “What happened to Mollie was a disgrace...Democrat immigration policies are destroying innocent lives and spilling very innocent blood. We believe that any party that puts criminal aliens before American citizens should be out of office, not into office.”

Former House Speaker and current head cheerleader for Trump Newt Gingrich declared on Fox News: “She was killed by a person who is exactly what Trump has been warning about...The left has to bear the burden of being the party that is tolerating Americans being killed by people who are here illegally.”


IT ISN’T hard to see what’s going on here. Republicans are hoping that enough talk about Tibbetts’ murder can distract from the most recent wave of scandals plaguing Trump — including his longtime lawyer Michael Cohen implicating him in open court on the same day that the announcement was made about the arrest for Tibbetts’ murder.

The Republicans are also hoping to refocus a push around anti-immigrant talking points in the run-up to midterm elections in which the party currently looks like it will take a hit.

Fox led the charge on the GOP talking points. The New York Times reported: “As other networks covered the president’s growing legal exposure, Fox alone broke in with news of Ms. Tibbetts’ death. Its coverage of her disappearance, and of the discovery of her body, has been exhaustive, with correspondents on the scene in Iowa featuring in multiple segments every hour.”

A revolving host of Fox celebrities took to the airwaves to blame Democrats and the left for “coddling” undocumented immigrants. According to Media Matters for America:

In the eight hours between reports that the 20-year-old University of Iowa student’s body had been found and the announcement of the suspect’s alleged legal status, [Fox] discussed the story for 21 minutes; after law enforcement announced that the suspect was undocumented, that coverage spiked to over three times as much throughout the next seven hours.

But it wasn’t only Fox. On Facebook, the Daily Caller’s Benny Johnson went on a racist rant, writing, “How is it possible that the sub-human horror of the third-world can find its way to the peaceful farm communities of my upbringing?”

The statement of Rivera’s lawyer Allan Richards that Rivera is a legal immigrant who came to the U.S. as a minor didn’t slow the right-wingers at all. The authorities dispute Richards’ statement.


THE RESPONSE from Tibbetts’ family, even as they are dealing with their grief, has been very moving.

In an appearance on CNN, Calderwood declared that she didn’t “want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics.” And on Facebook, she added, “Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire ordeal by friends from all different nations and races. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.”

Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, another relative, wrote online:

Mollie was killed, and a man has been arrested and charged with her murder. Yes, that man is an immigrant to this country, with uncertainty as to his legal status. But it matters not...

It is not your right to exacerbate this grievous act by hijacking Mollie and all she believed with your racist fearmongering. You do not get to use her murder to inaccurately promote your “permanently separated” hyperbole. You do not have permission to callously use this tragedy to demonize an entire population for the acts of one man.

Mollie’s friend Breck Goodman reiterated these sentiments at a vigil following Rivera’s arrest, saying: “I also know what Mollie stood for...and she would not approve. So 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.”

With the right-wing propaganda machine in overdrive, the facts beyond this one tragedy bear repeating: Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, are statistically less likely to commit crimes, including violent crimes.

As Vox pointed out in an article citing a Pew Research Center study that confirmed this conclusion:

[I]mmigrants, whether documented or not, generally come to the U.S. for similar reasons — to make better lives for themselves. That creates a selection bias effect: If immigrants are trying to come to the U.S. to find a better job or escape crime and violence in Latin America, they’re simply much less likely to be interested in committing crimes over, say, finding work or creating a safe environment for their children.

Demonizing all immigrants because of the actions of a few — and using this to further criminalize their existence — makes no more sense than outlawing marriage or domestic partnerships between men and women because of the fact that more than half of all female homicide victims are killed by a male intimate partner.

The willingness of Mollie Tibbetts’ family and friends to speak out against the racist scapegoating of immigrants is a powerful example for how we can push back against the bigotry that the right is attempting to stoke.

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