Mollie Tibbetts and the False Narrative of Rampant Immigrant Crime
Her murder is being used to attack immigrants, but many are glossing over the misogyny that killed her
In the packed gymnasium of Brooklyn-Guernsey-Malcom High School, over a thousand people gathered in mourning for Mollie Tibbetts, a 20-year old student University of Iowa student who was murdered a month ago. Loved ones recounted her “infectious joy and smiling” and remembered her generous spirit, one that always strived to help all those she encountered.
Tibbetts joins a growing list of American women who have been murdered in 2018. One detail, however, makes Tibbetts’ death stand out from the countless others that have slid by the radar of the media in the last few months: Tibbetts’ suspected killer is Cristhian Bahena Rivera, an undocumented immigrant.
While the family mourned the loss of their daughter, they found themselves being used as discussion points in an immigration debate fueled by the type of blistering racism that their daughter had so opposed.
Right-wing pundits took advantage of Tibbetts’ murder to scapegoat an entire community. Conservative commentator Candace Owens tweeted,
“Mollie Tibbits was killed by an illegal immigrant. There will be ZERO outrage from Democrats and the spineless celebrities who march to their orders because they need open borders for votes.
How many more AMERICAN lives is the left willing to sacrifice for elections?”
President Trump posted a video to his Twitter account where he cites the murder as justification for tightened immigration policy. “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.”
Since then, members of the Tibbetts family have repeatedly condemned those who have used their daughter’s death as a political rallying point for their racist anti-immigration rhetoric.
Sam Lucas, the distant cousin of Mollie Tibbetts, went on Twitter to reply to Candace Owen’s tweets.
Her father authored a column in the Des Moines Register in which he rebuked references to his daughter’s death “to advance a cause she vehemently opposed.”
“The person who is accused of taking Mollie’s life is no more a reflection of the Hispanic community as white supremacists are of all white people,” he said.
“To the Hispanic community, my family stands with you and offers its heartfelt apology. That you’ve been beset by the circumstances of Mollie’s death is wrong. We treasure the contribution you bring to the American tapestry in all its color and melody.”
Crime has long been cited by racist elements as a reason to curb immigration from “undesirable” nations. A lot of research has been done on the link between immigration and crime. And a lot of that research has found that there isn’t one.
The FBI found that between 1990 and 2013, the undocumented population tripled while the rate of violent crime fell by 48%.
The Cato Institute published a study in February of 2018 that examined homicide convictions in Texas and the citizenship status of the perpetrator. Immigrants (both legal and undocumented) were found to commit homicide at significantly lower rates than native-born Americans.
There were 951 total homicide convictions in Texas in 2015. Of those, native-born Americans were convicted of 885 homicides, illegal immigrants were convicted of 51 homicides, and legal immigrants were convicted of 15 homicides. The homicide conviction rate for native-born Americans was 3.88 per 100,000, 2.9 per 100,000 for illegal immigrants, and 0.51 per 100,000 for legal immigrants (Figure 2). In 2015, homicide conviction rates for illegal and legal immigrants were 25 percent and 87 percent below those of natives, respectively.
Illegal immigrants made up about 6.4 percent of the Texas population in 2015 but only accounted for 5.4 percent of all homicide convictions. Legal immigrants made up 10.4 percent of the Texas population but accounted for only 1.6 percent of homicide convictions. Native-born Americans made up 83 percent of the Texas population but accounted for 93 percent of all homicide convictions.
Another study conducted by Butcher and Piehl (2000) found that 3.4% of native-born Americans were institutionalized. Most of these people were prisoners. But undocumented immigrants had an institutionalization rate of just 0.7%. Furthermore, among those who had not finished high school, the disparity was even greater: native-born Americans were incarcerated at a rate of 11% while undocumented immigrants were only at 1%.
Hagan and Palloni (2014) found that Hispanic immigrants were less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. A study of three communities in Miami, El Paso, and San Diego found that immigration did not increase homicides among Latinos and African Americans.
Vaughn et al. (2013) compared anti-social behavior between native-born Americans and immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They concluded:
Immigrants to the US are less likely to engage in violent or nonviolent antisocial behaviors than native-born Americans. Notably, native-born Americans were approximately four times more likely to report violent behavior than Asian and African immigrants and three times more likely than immigrants from Latin America.
In fact, Ousey and Kubrin (2014) found that immigration might actually be correlated to a decrease in crime. In a study of 150 Metropolitan Statistical Areas, Reid et al. (2005) found that immigration high a statistically significant negative influence on homicide rates and no correlation with rates of property crime.
What can explain this?
Economists say that it is due to undocumented immigrants’ lower personal discount rates. Personal discount rates measure how a person values something in the present versus possible benefits of that same thing in the future. A starving person has a very high discount rate, because they place much more value in having a piece of food now than they value saving that piece of food for future use. That piece of food is more valuable to them in the present than in the future. Likewise, a college student may have a low discount rate, because they value the future benefits of an education more than they value the present money used to pay for that education.
Those who engage in criminal behaviors often have very high discount rates: the value of immediate profits of crime outweigh the potential future costs of imprisonment. But let’s think about the mindset of an immigrant.
Not everyone who wants to illegally cross the border does so. There are tremendous difficulties and risks associated with it: heat stroke, dehydration, bandits, corrupt human traffickers, arrest, and imprisonment. Additionally, undocumented immigrants frequently need the help of a smuggler — known as a coyote — to get them across the border. These coyotes do not come cheap. The cost of hiring one, which can reach thousands of dollars, prevents many from venturing into the United States.
Those who choose to go have a low discount rate because they value the future benefits of reaching America more than the current costs and risks associated with crossing the border. Once in America, this issue of discount rate can be applied to crime. If these immigrants risked so much to come to America, will they risk their long-term success in America for the short-term benefits of crime? Probably not.
This is not that say that no undocumented immigrants commit crime. This is saying that most do not because they have much more to risk, and are more future-oriented, as the data above suggests.
Mollie Tibbett was murdered by an undocumented immigrant. That is true. But her death cannot be used as an example of a larger trend of immigrant crime, because no such trend exists.
Every single person should be infuriated by Tibbetts’ death. Every person has the right to mourn and anger should be pointed at Rivera for stalking and killing a young woman. But blame should not be cast at a population of over 11 million men, women, and children who live and work peacefully in the United States. Besides the fact that such actions would be unfairly scapegoating an entire population, it ignores the presence of a much larger issue that has led to literally thousands of deaths over the years.
According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 55% of female homicides from 2003–2014 were committed by intimate partners while only 16% were committed by strangers. Why, then, are we not focusing on curbing violence against women perpetrated by husbands, boyfriends, and exes? Why don’t we ban all men?
Many people will quickly condemn me for saying such things and retort that Mollie’s death would not have happened had Rivera not been in the country.
But Mollie’s death would also not have happened if men did not feel entitled to a woman’s time. It would not have happened if men did not often react so violently to a woman’s rejection.
There are many things that would have prevented Mollie’s death. To enact reactionary immigration policies that sweep up millions of hard-working community members and displace them from their homes due solely to their citizenship status is an incredibly unfair and ineffective response.
Many of the pundits wielding these xenophobic arguments claim to be defending American lives, but these very same figures are silent when violent white men literally go on shooting sprees in our schools, churches, movie theaters, and malls. Their silence reveals their hypocrisy. Their feigned concern for the lives of Americans, and American women specifically, extends only so far as their ability to manipulate such stories to fit anti-immigrant rhetoric. Let us not pretend that right-wing commentators would even know the name of Mollie Tibbetts had her assailant been a white man. In fact, Tibbetts would most likely become the target of those same right-wingers who would then blame her for her own murder, finding ridiculous justifications in her clothing or in the time of day she chose to jog.
I will state this once again: America, we should be enraged by Mollie Tibbetts’ murder. But we must ask what we wish to accomplish with our anger.
Do we want to prevent more women from being the victims of violence? If so, then persecuting and deporting immigrants will do little to impact the homicide rates of women. Native-born American men are just as effective as any immigrant man of murdering women. Here are just a few examples:
There is an undeniable link between Mollie Tibbetts’ murderer and all the ones listed above: all of them are men who believe that they are entitled to a woman’s time, affection, or body. Following Mollie Tibbetts’ death, BBC wrote an article covering the discussion that has started on social media about the harassment and predatory behavior many women have experienced while jogging.
The 2017 survey revealed that 43% of women experienced harassment while running — with the number rising to 58% for women under 30. Just 4% of men reported the same.
The poll also found 30% of women said they had been followed by a harasser on foot, by car or bike. And the vast majority of women said these fears led them to change their habits — to run only during the day, to change their routes, to carry pepper spray or — in the case of 1% of women — to carry a loaded gun.
A campus climate survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that one in five women faced sexual assault on college campuses.
Another survey by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that half of all women report experiencing sexual harassment at work.
The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that 23 million women have been victims of rape or attempted rape. The survey also found that 1 in 3 women “were victims of contact sexual violence at some point in their lives” and that 1 in 4 women “were victims of contact sexual violence physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner.
Would Mollie be dead if she were a man? Most likely not for the same reason that women use the line “I have a boyfriend” to stave off unwanted sexual advances: men respect other men and their supposed ‘claim’ on a woman more than they respect the actual wishes of the woman.
Moreover, by reducing undocumented immigrants into a monolithic, faceless force, by treating them like they are simply a discussion topic for dinner parties or merely a variable in a conversation about crime erases the thousands of undocumented women who have crossed the border to escape life-threatening situations in their homelands. A report from Doctors Without Borders details the horrific levels of violence that these migrants have witnessed. “Citizens are murdered with impunity, kidnappings and extortion are daily occurrences. Non-state actors perpetuate insecurity and forcibly recruit individuals into their ranks, and use sexual violence as a tool of intimidation and control.”
The instability that has led so many to flee to the United States is deeply rooted in our foreign interventions in Central America, such as when the CIA overthrew the democratically-elected Guatemalan president in 1954 and installed a military dictatorship that enacted a genocide against indigenous peoples, or how the US failed to condemn the 2009 Honduran coup, opting instead of continue sending money to a government that regularly represses human rights and whose population live in a state of gang-ruled anarchy. Let’s also not forget about how the United States supported a brutal El Salvadoran dictatorship in the 1980’s that regularly massacred civilians, and let’s also not forget that the United States is single-handedly responsible for the proliferation of MS-13 in Central America. Through reckless foreign policy, deportations of gang members led to the exporting of a small street gang from California into an international scourge whose brutality and violence has forced tens of thousands from their homes.
If we want to prevent more women from being murdered, we must address the real issue that killed her: men feeling entitled to women’s bodies. This, I understand, is a much more difficult path. How simple it is to just blame immigrants! Shut down the borders — what an easy solution!
Easy solutions often become sloppy failures. The real-world is laden with complex problems that require complex answers, as well as difficult conversations. Indeed, closing the borders and deporting our undocumented communities will not prevent anymore Cristhian Rivera’s from stalking our country’s grounds, they will simply create more Mollie Tibbetts’ on the other side of our border.