The death of a college student has set off fear of anti-immigrant violence in Iowa

A poster for Mollie Tibbetts, who had been missing since July 18.
A poster for Mollie Tibbetts, who had been missing since July 18.
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year-old Iowa college student who had been missing since July 18, was found dead on Tuesday (Aug. 21), after a man named Cristhian Bahena Rivera led police to her body. Police say Rivera, a 24-year-old farmworker who is accused of abducting and murdering Tibbetts, confessed to circling around Tibbetts in his car as she jogged and getting out and running alongside her, before he said he blacked out.

Authorities also said Rivera, who is from Mexico, was an undocumented immigrant—a fact that the White House publicized and politicized earlier this week with a tweet identifying Rivera as an “illegal alien” and sharing a video of parents who had been “permanently separated” from their children by other undocumented immigrants. (The “permanently separated” language is a clear nod to the controversial practice of separating immigrant children from their parents in the US.)

On Wednesday (Aug. 22), Trump also posted a video stating that “Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman, is now permanently separated from her family. A person came in from Mexico illegally and killed her. We need the wall, we need our immigration laws changed, we need our border laws changed, we need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren’t going to do it.”

Around the country, people have been condemning Trump’s rhetoric as racist fear-mongering. CNN’s Rafia Zakaria pointed out that the White House was silent when Nabra Hassanen, a Muslim Virginia teenager, was allegedly kidnapped, raped, and killed by an illegal immigrant.

“Not all dead girls in America are mourned the same way,” wrote Zakaria. “Those who do not fit into the narrative of white women in danger of being raped and killed by lurking brown men get comparatively little attention, and consequently little or no portion of the nation’s compassion.”

There are historic underpinnings to the hierarchy; the white female runner killed by the foreign savage plays upon and replenishes existing prejudice. Whether looking at the Jim Crow narratives of white women under threat by black rapists or more recent examples like the Central Park jogger case, parallels persist between the black man’s figure and that of the undocumented immigrant. In those historical cases as well as now, the purported threat was never backed up by actual evidence. Undocumented immigrants are less likely, not more, to commit crimes of any kind.  

According to local Iowa station KWWL, Tibbetts’ aunt, Billie Jo Calderwood, asked in a since-deleted Facebook post that people “please remember, Evil comes in EVERY color. 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.”

“I don’t want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics,” Calderwood told CNN.

Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, who the Washington Post identified as Mollie Tibbetts’ cousin (Quartz has reached out to Murphy and will update this post if we hear back), also posted a message on Aug. 24 on Facebook decrying what she called a “racist, false narrative.”

“We must be willing to address the way we raise our boys and young men, so that violence is not a part of their response to this world. Like the recent murders of the Colorado family or the similarly tragic homicide of Kate Steinle, Mollie’s death is further example of the toxic masculinity that exists in our society,” she wrote. ”You do not have permission to callously use this tragedy to demonize an entire population for the acts of one man.”

That message had been liked nearly 50,000 times at the time of writing—and many have shared the sentiment that violence against women is the issue we should be addressing—but the anti-immigrant fear-mongering seems to be working, at least to some degree. Two Latino festivals previously scheduled for this weekend in Iowa were postponed.

“No one at this festival was going to be prepared for any kind of incident,” an Iowa City Latino Festival organizer, Manny Galvez, told the Des Moines Register. “People are scared.”