Marcos Bretón

Listen to Mollie Tibbetts’ family, not the fear-mongering rhetoric

A loyal reader sent me a curious email about the tragic case of an immigrant with a Spanish surname and a dark complexion who is accused of murdering a young woman in Iowa.

It’s curious because roughly two to three women are killed each day in the U.S. by an intimate partner, according to the Violence Prevention Center, and yet you’ll never know the names of the victims because their deaths won’t come close to generating the wall-to-wall coverage focusing on the death of Mollie Tibbetts.

Tibbetts, a 20-year-old University of Iowa student, had been missing since mid-July. Her remains were found this week. Cristhian Rivera, 24, was arrested and charged with murdering her. Law enforcement authorities said that Rivera was in the U.S. from Mexico without a visa or legal residency status.

President Donald Trump seized on that information to promote the idea of an immigration crisis that doesn’t exist because some of his supporters love thinking that it does. He also elevated this story far beyond the plight of many missing African American girls whose names you’ll never know because my colleagues in the media will never write about them in the way they have in the Tibbetts case. In 2016, the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology actually studied this phenomenon in a report called: “Missing White Woman Syndrome: An Empirical Analysis of Race and Gender Disparities in Online News Coverage of Missings Persons.

We’ll come back to the findings of that study in a moment, but let’s not lose the point.


Any murder is an unspeakable tragedy and the pain and suffering inflicted on the family of Mollie Tibbetts is beyond words. We all feel deep sympathy for those who loved Mollie Tibbetts, especially her immediate family.

But this case is not solely national news because of shared grief. It went viral because Trump exploited the news that Rivera may be “illegal.”

Trump notwithstanding, Rivera’s immigration status hasn’t been nailed down. His lawyer contends that Rivera was in the country legally, law enforcement says not. Still, if Rivera’s immigration status had never been described as “illegal,” few people outside of Iowa would have heard the name Mollie Tibbetts.

But it was and they did. So this story became about an immigration “debate” that is not really a debate. It’s a smear job that Trump – and Trumpers – seize, taking single homicides to malign huge swaths of people whose only crime is poverty, their place of birth and their reliance on Congress to legalize the many workers needed for labor in California and across America.

The net effect of Trump racist immigration games is that some in the public racially profile people by viewing anyone and everyone who looks “Hispanic” as a threat or an enemy or plague.

Remember the New York lawyer who berated people he heard speaking Spanish and threatened to call immigration on them last May? Or the San Bernardino County woman who unleashed a racist tirade at a Latino man – an American citizen – and his mother by accusing him and his family of being “rapists” and “illegals”? Those are Trump catchphrases that he has used since he first announced he was running for president.

The president and his supporters will say that his problem is with “illegals,” but that’s not really true. The two attacks on Latinos that I shared here – and others – show that American citizens with roots in Latin America are being targeted because of the way they look and by people emboldened by the president.

The suggestion that federal immigration authorities are only concerned with dangerous immigrants or “illegals” is simply not true, based on the arrests and deportations of many people living productive lives. We even saw the deportation of the wife of a U.S. serviceman who voted for Trump..

The president’s administration is working to target legal immigrants and refugees as well. Becoming U.S. citizens for legal residents is more difficult because of its efforts, as is entering the country for refugees fleeing violence and poverty. And it may seek to punish legal residents for accessing health insurance, food stamps and other benefits.

With the lines sufficiently blurred, my loyal reader friend’s observations about the case of Mollie Tibbetts and Cristhian Rivera are not surprising. Here’s how the reader blurred the lines of the case to fit the profile of suspicion promoted by Trump: “Another fine dreamer? Just imagine how her father feels. You sure we don’t need a wall? Do we have the right to control who comes in to our country?”

The short answer is that Rivera should be prosecuted and, if he is found guilty in a court of law, he should be sentenced to the fullest extent of the law. This really shouldn’t be complicated, but it is because what’s driving the president and the coverage of Tibbetts case is not about simple law and order.

When my reader describes Rivera as “another fine dreamer,” he’s referring to the undocumented immigrant kids who were brought to our country when they were little, often not realizing until years later that they were undocumented. President Barack Obama created the special designation called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, so these young people would be less subject to deportation.

Many DACA kids are outstanding students, or serve in the military, and many of them don’t want to be deported to nations they don’t know. They want to be Americans. That’s one reason they were dubbed “dreamers.”

Whether Rivera fits the criteria for DACA status is not clear: Arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16, continually resided in the U.S. since June of 2017, graduated from high school, no felony convictions.

But facts and details don’t matter in the “immigration debate.” Even if Rivera were a DACA kid, and there is no proof that he is, so what? If DACA kids had ever been granted permanent legal status, they only could have achieved it with clean records.

A felony, like a murder, meant that you didn’t qualify. So I’m not sticking up for Rivera. If he is found guilty in a court of law, he gets what he gets. I’m sticking up for all the kids whose futures are threatened by a racist president and his supporters, some of whom don’t see a difference between an outstanding college student and a murder suspect.

Some immigrants from Latin America who are a danger should be locked up. Maybe Rivera is one. Luis Bracamontes, who killed Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy Danny Oliver and Placer County Sheriff’s Detective Michael Davis Jr. in 2014, is certainly one. Bracamontes was sentenced to the death penalty and even though Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic majority are blocking its implementation against the will of voters, I would be fine with Bracamontes getting the needle for his heinous crimes and the pain and suffering he’s caused.

But again, these are individual cases hyped by Trump to promote the lie of lawless immigrants everywhere when crime is generally lower in immigrant communities – far lower than among native born Americans.

Simple, right? This really shouldn’t be controversial but it is because Trump has tapped into a general animosity toward immigrants, whether they are legal or ‘Illegal,” and he jumps on each opportunity to promote it. If a white boy kills a white girl, Trump has nothing to say. But if Rivera is “illegal”? The president knows it plays well with his base.

And I know that despite everything I’ve written here – despite saying that Rivera should be prosecuted, Bracamontes should be executed – some in Trump’s base will read this and reduce these words to me defending murderers, when I’m not; and advocating for “open borders,” when I’m not.

Let me draw you a picture: Prosecute the bad guys, don’t smear the hard-working people we need in our economy, don’t berate American citizens for the way they look or sound. If you still don’t get it, you don’t want to get it, because when you hear Trump say he wants to “make America great again,” you take that to mean “make America white again.”

The family of Mollie Tibbetts gets it. Samantha Lucas, a second cousin of Tibbets, said this to CNN: “She would not want (her death) to be used as fuel against undocumented immigrants.”

Oh, and when African Americans or other people of color are killed? Their stories aren’t leading the news. That study about “Missing White Woman Syndrome”? Here is the money quote: ”At any given time, there are tens of thousands of Americans categorized as ‘missing’ by law enforcement. However, only a fraction of those individuals receive news coverage, leading some commentators to hypothesize that missing persons with certain characteristics are more likely to garner media attention than others: namely, white women and girls.”