Mollie Tibbetts’ Tragic Murder Shouldn’t Be Exploited to Vilify the Undocumented Community

Lead Photo: Undocumented immigrant Larissa Martinez from Mexico City speaks at a protest rally. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Undocumented immigrant Larissa Martinez from Mexico City speaks at a protest rally. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
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Mollie Tibbetts’ death is a tragedy. For weeks, her loved ones waited on tips on her whereabouts and offered up nearly $400,000 in rewards for her safe return after she stepped out for an evening jog on July 18 in Brooklyn, Iowa. On Tuesday, police revealed that Cristhian Bahena Rivera led them to a body in a cornfield that they believe belonged to the 20-year-old student. Bahena, 24, admitted to pursuing Tibbetts with his car, though he reportedly “blocked” what happened between that time and when he later found her in the trunk of his car. Investigators charged him, reportedly an undocumented immigrant (though his lawyer has called that into question), with first-degree murder. And while we should absolutely denounce this crime, we shouldn’t take this as an opportunity to further vilify the undocumented community.

Already, this is happening. Conservatives have flooded Twitter with comments requesting that news organizations call Bahena an “illegal immigrant,” a derogatory term that dehumanizes the undocumented community. And President Donald Trump, who invoked the death of Kathryn Steinle during his presidential campaign to malign this vulnerable group, is already politicizing her death.

“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,” Trump said, according to The New York Times. “It should’ve never happened. Illegally in our country. We’ve had a huge impact, but the laws are so bad, the immigration laws are such a disgrace.”

Immigration critics have also made it clear that Tibbetts’ death will be crucial to the 2018 election. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee tweeted, “If found guilty, [Bahena Rivera] will be reminder why sanctuary cities & open borders are as stupid as the politicians who promote them.”

Trump has consistently tried to tie undocumented immigrants to increased crime. And while statistics on all crimes committed by undocumented immigrant crimes are not readily available, there is plenty of research that shows Trump’s assertions are far from the truth. In February, the Cato Institute published a study of criminal conviction data in Texas for the year 2015. It found that US-born citizens were much more likely to be convicted of crimes. Additionally, a large-scale research project by four universities studied the crime rates of 200 metropolitan areas in the last few decades. It revealed that crime rates fell more often as immigrant populations increased, The New York Times reports.

And there’s even anecdotal evidence from those like Art Acevedo, the police chief in Houston. “There’s no wave of crime being committed by the immigrant community,” Acevedo told NPR. “As a matter of fact, a lot of the violent crime that we’re dealing with is being committed by people that are born and raised right here in the United States… Having worked around this community my entire professional career, which is about 32 years, I know that the vast majority of them that I’ve encountered are hard-working. They’re here to earn an honest living.”

Unfortunately, when a person of color commits a crime, it’s a reflection of their entire community. Even though we should all want justice for Mollie Tibbetts, it shouldn’t come at the expense of the many innocent undocumented people just trying to get by.