(CNN)The man arrested in the death of Mollie Tibbetts is an undocumented immigrant, but this is a single story — not a statistic — although President Donald Trump and other Republican politicians would like to make it seem otherwise.
Tibbetts, an Iowa college student, went missing in July and a body believed to be hers was found on Tuesday. After the arrest of Christhian Bahena Rivera (who according to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico) on first degree murder charges, Trump referred to Tibbetts’ death (still not officially confirmed) and called the nation’s immigration laws “a disgrace.” The White House tweeted Tuesday: “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.”
This tweet is part of a larger narrative that the White House has stoked, in which the issue of immigration policy — specifically invoked in the same tweet by its reference to family separation — becomes a code for selectively dehumanizing and criminalizing undocumented immigrants. The White House tweets about Mollie Tibbetts, but why not about other cases?
At both the Republican National Convention in 2016 and the State of the Union in 2018, Trump had the family members of those murdered by illegal immigrants (to whom he refers as “Angel Families”) share their stories. Then, as now, his evident aim was to make a handful of stories seem like a statistical norm.
The truth is that any young woman like Mollie Tibbetts (or myself) has a much greater chance of dying at the hands of a husband or boyfriend of any type than meeting harm at the hands of an undocumented immigrant in the United States. However, the White House immediately politicized the killing via its Twitter account, highlighting that the man charged with murder in Tibbetts’ death is an “illegal alien,” language that Trump has used consistently to dehumanize undocumented immigrants and to insinuate, despite evidence that shows the opposite, that undocumented immigrants are more criminal than other populations.
When Chris Watts was charged with murder in the deaths of his wife and two daughters this month, that news was treated differently than the murder of Mollie Tibbets. The White House did not Tweet, for example, “American citizen murdered his wife.” And in news reports, Watts was referred to as “Colorado husband” or “Colorado dad,” the kind of language that is apparently reserved for white men who murder — not undocumented immigrants. Despite protests from the Tibbetts’ family, the Trump administration continues to use Tibbetts’ murder for its political purposes.
The Tibbetts family has suffered an unspeakable loss. Tibbetts’ aunt, Billie Jo Calderwood, told CNN “I don’t want Mollie’s memory to get lost amongst politics” and a friend, Breck Goodman, said, “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.”
The reaction to Tibbett’s death also exposes fault lines about race and prejudice. Not only is the White House not tweeting about Chris Watts, the Trump administration (and to a lesser extent, some of the media) has been silent about cases involving non-white victims — ranging from missing black girls in Washington DC to the death of Nabra Hassanen, a northern Virginia Muslim teen, allegedly also at the hands of a man who entered the country illegally. The political expediency of using one girl or woman’s death over another says ugly things about where we are in America today.
Is an accused killer’s immigration status relevant, and if so, how? News outlets like The Washington Post led with “undocumented immigrant” in the headline, although after receiving criticism on social media, the headline was changed to “suspected killer, in the US illegally.” How do we square featuring the immigration status of one suspect in a case with a female victim with the reality that women in America between the ages of 18-24, like Tibbetts, are most likely to experience abuse from an intimate partner, and on average 2-3 women per day are murdered by intimate partners in the US. Indeed, if the President wanted to focus on data about how to keep women safe, he would invest in domestic violence prevention. Instead, his administration has refused to grant immigrant women fleeing domestic violence asylum.
Another inconvenient truth that Trump has overlooked is the number of undocumented women who experience violence at the hands of US citizens. When I was on assignment on the US-Mexico border with National Geographic in June, I visited the Casa de Misericordia, a domestic violence shelter in Laredo, Texas. Some 70% of the women who have stayed at the shelter during its 20 years of existence have been undocumented.
While there, I interviewed Vanessa (a pseudonym I’m using for her safety, at the request of the director of the shelter where I interviewed her), 33, an undocumented immigrant who was staying at the shelter with her daughters, ages 3, 2 and 7 months. She was afraid because her boyfriend, a US citizen, had threatened to deport her and keep the children. “I don’t care if I get sent back, but not without my daughters,” she said. In June 2018, the New York Times reported that fewer immigrants were reporting domestic abuse, providing as an example the story of an undocumented woman who feared that if she called the police, she would be separated from her children.
Mollie Tibbetts’ murder — like all forms of violence against women — is tragic. However, it compounds the tragedy for Trump to use Tibbetts’ story for his own political aims — to paint undocumented immigrants as inherently criminal. Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by 20 women including his ex-wife Ivana, knows from personal experience how likely women are to experience intimate partner violence — but that data isn’t politically useful to him.