How the death of UI student Mollie Tibbetts became a national story

The death of Mollie Tibbetts sparked a national debate over the issue of immigration reform, while others said they believe the issue at hand was violence against women.


Mollie Tibbetts

Elianna Novitch and Sarah Watson

The death of the University of Iowa student brought national attention to Brooklyn, Iowa, after the body of Mollie Tibbetts was found among corn stalks near there.

But how did a woman from the UI, a Dance Marathon participant and RVAP advocate, spur a nationwide immigration debate from prominent politicians Aug. 26 and after?

“Conservative politicians right now are very motivated to talk about immigration,” said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute. “They see it as a politically beneficial issue for them to talk about, where violence against women is not an issue that they’ve found politically beneficial.”

Politicians called for immigration reform after authorities reported that the murder suspect, Cristhian Bahena Rivera, was an undocumented immigrant.

“It’s not surprising to see groups use events to advance their agenda,” UI political-science Associate Professor Cary Covington said. “It’s simply up to the American people to discern whether it’s a reasonable inference that each of the groups is drawing about how the event impacts their policy.”

Family members and advocates, however, say the topic of violence against women was largely ignored — at least as news of her death broke.

A family member of Tibbetts took to social media to “Reclaim our Mollie” from the immigration debate.

“Yes, that man is an immigrant to this country, with uncertainty as to his legal status. But it matters not …” Sandi Tibbetts Murphy said. “He is a man who, because of his sense of male entitlement, refused to allow Mollie the right to reject his advances.”

Even before Aug. 21, when the authorities revealed the suspect’s immigration status, the Tibbetts case attracted national headlines despite other cases of missing Iowans.

Social-media users raised concerns and posted cautionary warnings after Tibbetts’ disappearance gained national attention, prompting the Iowa Department of Public Safety to issue a statement  assuring the public that the number of missing-persons cases was steady.

After calls came to fix the immigration system, some members of the public tried to reroute the discussion back toward advocating against violence. Trending social-media movements such as Miles for Mollie iterated solidarity among women who have been stalked while jogging.

“I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome. But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.

— Rob Tibbetts

Donald Trump Jr. dismissed the argument that Tibbetts’ death had anything to do with violence against women in a column in the Des Moines Register.

“CNN commentator Symone Sanders tweeted that the murder had nothing at all to do with illegal immigration and everything to do with ‘toxic masculinity,’ ” Trump Jr. wrote.

Rob Tibbetts, Mollie Tibbetts’ father, wrote an op-ed in response to that op-ed, condemning politicians who “used Mollie’s death to promote various political agendas.”

“I encourage the debate on immigration; there is great merit in its reasonable outcome,” he wrote. “But do not appropriate Mollie’s soul in advancing views she believed were profoundly racist.”

Rob Tibbetts thanked politicians who backtracked on their political statements immediately following Tibbetts’ death.

Since releasing her initial statement, Reynolds has since denied politicizing the Tibbetts case, telling reporters, “This is not about politics. This is about policy.”

Other politicians and news outlets, however, have continued the conversation.

Victor Pickard, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of communication, said media coverage of Tibbetts and President Trump’s campaign-rally comments helped to divert attention from other prominent news surrounding Trump aides.

He said Trump’s ability — whether strategically planned or not — to “dictate news narratives and be able to set the agenda for any of our news media outlets across the country” was apparent in his 2016 campaign, and the Tibbetts case was “yet another example.”