Mollie Tibbetts’s body was found in a cornfield in the early hours of Tuesday morning, covered in stalks and leaves. The 20-year-old University of Iowa student disappeared on July 18, after going for a jog in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa. Her family reported her missing the following day when she did not arrive at her daycare job for a shift.
Authorities in Iowa launched an extensive search in the days that followed her disappearance. Within hours Mollie’s photo appeared all over local and national news stations. ‘Missing Mollie Tibbetts’ flyers exploded over every social media imaginable as the University of Iowa student body endeavoured to spread awareness. A reward fund of more than $300,000 was raised in an attempt to bring Mollie home. More than 1,500 tips were received by authorities concerning Mollie’s whereabouts, and over 500 interviews were conducted throughout the case.
Mollie Tibbetts’s death is a tragedy that has stunned not just my university and state, but the whole country. And America has its own way of dealing with national trauma: thoughts and prayers, followed by calls for action, then the retort about not politicising what happened. Take a mass shooting for example: figures on the right offer ‘thoughts and prayers’, their opponents on the left demand gun reform, and the comeback ‘don’t politicise this tragedy.’
But this time, the roles are reversed. As the left calls for Mollie’s murder to be handled with sensitivity, the right calls for reform, particularly the construction of a border wall. Because Mollie’s killer, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, is an illegal alien from Mexico, according to ICE.
24-year-old Rivera was arrested on first-degree murder charges. The suspect admitted approaching Mollie in his car during her jog and pursuing her, then exiting his vehicle to run alongside her. Mollie pulled out her cellphone and warned Rivera that she would call the police if he continued to follow her, which angered him. Rivera claims her blacked out and came to at an intersection in Poweshiek County, Iowa near where Mollie’s body would later be found.
‘As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry… We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can (to) bring justice to Mollie’s killer,’ the Republican Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds tweeted.
‘Heartbroken by the news about Mollie Tibbetts…we commend the swift action by local, state, and federal investigators working in Iowa in apprehending an illegal immigrant, who’s now charged with first-degree murder,’ Vice President Mike Pence tweeted.
President Donald Trump mentioned Mollie’s case at a West Virginia rally on the day her body was found: ‘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. Should’ve never happened.’
After the calls to action, the backlash. A member of my college’s student government responded to Gov. Reynolds, with a now-viral tweet: ‘The murder of Molly [sic] Tibbetts must not become a weapon for demonizing Iowa’s Latinx and immigrant communities. Shame on you, Governor Reynolds, for propagating the myth that immigrants are disproportionately tied to predation. This is an utter disgrace to Mollie’s memory.’
It seems easy to place blame on the United States’ immigration system, or lack thereof, for the murder of a young white American woman. Many on the right are arguing that Mollie Tibbetts would be alive if not for Cristhian Rivera’s presence in the United States. Some of them are even arguing about it with her family members, a day after she was found. Undoubtedly a horrifying thing to do — but it does beg the question: when is the right time to politicise a tragedy?
Students at my school, among others, think it’s completely inappropriate to discuss immigration reform a day after we learn our classmate was murdered by an illegal alien — though his lawyer contests his legal status. And they could be right. But would they share the same sensitivity when mass shootings are met with cries for gun reform? Is that not just as off-limits?
Elena Alvarez is a senior at the University of Iowa.