Mollie Tibbetts was 20 years old when she left to go for a run in Brooklyn, Iowa on the evening of July 18. She never came back.
Weeks after her disappearance, her body was found in a field in Poweshiek County. She was murdered, and law enforcement officials said the man accused of killing her, Cristhian Rivera, 24, was an undocumented immigrant.
Rivera’s lawyers claimed he was in the country legally, but the right immediately jumped on the case. For them, Tibbetts’ death — according to everyone from online, right-wing trolls to the president himself — was proof the country needed to crack down on Mexican immigrants and build a wall.
In the days since Tibbetts’ body was discovered, however, her family has pushed back against that narrative.
In a video posted to Twitter last week, President Trump referenced critics of his administration’s family separation policy — a practice that referred parents detained at the border for prosecution and forced their children into juvenile detention centers with histories of abuse and neglect — comparing the plights of those separated immigrant families with Tibbetts in a racist monologue.
“Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family,” he said. “A person came in, from Mexico, illegally, and killed her. We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed. We have tremendous crime trying to come through the borders. We have the worst laws anywhere in the world.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 22, 2018
The official White House account also tweeted about the case, alluding again to the reprehensible family separation policy.
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. pic.twitter.com/BBskwHEJoU
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) August 22, 2018
At Tibbetts’ funeral Sunday, her father, Rob Tibbetts, alluded to the president’s remarks, suggesting Trump was not only wrong, but that hateful commentary was not what his daughter would’ve wanted.
“The Hispanic community are Iowans,” he said. “They have the same values as Iowans…. As far as I’m concerned, they’re Iowans with better food.”
He added, “The person best equipped to help us through this is Mollie. So let’s try to do what Mollie would do. Let’s say what Mollie would say.”
Rob Tibbetts’ comments are the latest in a line of statements from Mollie’s family hitting back at the racist, anti-immigrant narrative pushed by the president and his supporters.
Last week, Tibbetts’ second cousin, Sam Lucas, responded to a tweet from right-wing troll Candace Owens asking what the left would do for Tibbetts’ family.
“Leftists boycotted, screamed, and cried when illegal immigrants were temporarily separated from their parents,” Owens tweeted. “What will they do for Mollie Tibbetts?”
Leftists boycotted, screamed, and cried when illegal immigrants were temporarily separated from from their parents.
What will they do for Mollie Tibbetts?
What did they do for Kate Steinle?
They will NEVER see their parents again.
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) August 21, 2018
“[W]e are not so fucking small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals,” Lucas responded. “[N]ow stop being a fucking snake and using my cousins [sic] death as political propaganda. [T]ake her name out of your mouth.”
and fyi @RealCandaceO, my whole family is hurting right now and you’re not helping. you’re despicable and this is so far from the loving and kind soul that mollie was. my prayers go out to you in hopes that maybe you’ll become a better person. not hedging my bets tho.
— sam (@samlucasss) August 22, 2018
In an interview with CNN, Lucas said that although she hadn’t known Tibbetts well, she knew enough to believe “she would not want this to be used as fuel against undocumented immigrants.”
Another relative, Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, released a similar statement on Facebook over the weekend. “Especially for those of you who did not know her in life, you do not get to usurp Mollie and her legacy for your racist, false narrative now that she is no longer with us,” she wrote. “Yes, [Rivera] is an immigrant to this country, with uncertainty to his legal status. But it matters not.”
Murphy said the real problem, one that may have led to Tibbetts’ death, was male entitlement.
According to the Washington Post, Rivera told police he had seen Tibbetts’ running the night of July 18, and “approached her, and ran alongside or behind her, even relaying to authorities that Tibbetts had grabbed her phone and threatened to call the police.” After pursuing Tibbetts for several minutes, Rivera said he abducted her.
Murphy alluded to that account in her Facebook post, writing, “[Rivera] is a man who felt entitled to impose himself on Mollie’s life, without consequence. He is a man who, because of his sense of male entitlement, refused to allow Mollie the right to reject his advances — the right to her own autonomy. Mollie was murdered because a man denied her right to say no.”
She added, “Our national discussion needs to be about the violence committed in our society, mostly by men […].”
Murphy is correct: on average, between two and three women are murdered by their domestic partners every day — and that number is likely too low considering how many domestic abuse cases go unreported. Additionally, immigrants are actually significantly less likely to commit crimes than native born Americans.
As the Post noted in 2015, immigration and crime have even had inverse trajectories since the 1990s, as immigration rates have risen while crime as fallen.
This is to say: Mollie Tibbetts was not murdered because undocumented immigrants are dangerous — they aren’t. As Murphy notes, she was murdered because a man did not listen when she said no. And as Tibbetts’ family has argued, the focus on her alleged killer’s immigration status not only erases the reality of immigrant crime, it also taints the space they need to mourn and remember what she would have wanted them to remember.