MONTEZUMA, Iowa -- The disappearance of a well-liked college student from America's heartland had touched many people since she vanished one month ago while out for a run. But the stunning news that a Mexican man living in the U.S. illegally has allegedly confessed to kidnapping and murdering her thrust the case into the middle of the contentious immigration debate and midterm elections.
President Trump seized on the man's arrest in the death of Mollie Tibbetts on Tuesday to call the nation's immigration laws "a disgrace" that will only be fixed by electing more Republicans. Iowa's Republican governor, facing a tough re-election challenge in November, blasted an immigration system that "allowed a predator like this to live in our community." And Iowa's two U.S. senators, both Republicans, called the death a tragedy that "could have been prevented."
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the death of the 20-year-old Tibbetts, whose July 18 disappearance set off a massive search involving state and federal authorities.
"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," Mr. Trump told the crowd in Charleston. "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, we're getting them changed, but we have to get more Republicans. We have to get 'em."
CBS Des Moines affiliate KCCI-TV reports Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statement saying in part, "As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry. We are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community, and we will do all we can bring justice to Mollie's killer."
U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst vowed: "We cannot allow these tragedies to continue."
In a statement late Tuesday, Yarrabee Farms said Rivera had worked at its farms for the last four years and was an employee in good standing. The Brooklyn-based company said it was shocked to hear that Rivera was charged in Tibbetts' death. Yarrabee Farms is owned by the family of Craig Lang, a prominent Republican who previously served as president of the Iowa Farm Bureau.
The president has made further crackdown on illegal immigration a core policy of his administration. He often has claimed widespread crime by people living in the country illegally, citing among other things the indictments of 11 suspected MS-13 gang members from El Salvador charged in connection with the slayings of two Virginia teens. He also has held events at the White House with members of "angel families," whose relatives were killed by immigrants.
Although Mr. Trump claims legal U.S. residents are less likely to commit crime, several studies from social scientists and the libertarian think tank Cato Institute find that isn't accurate and that states with a higher share of people living in the country illegally have lower violent crime rates.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it lodged a federal immigration detainer for Rivera after he was arrested on the murder charge. That move means the agency has probable cause to believe he is subject to deportation.
Investigators said they believed Rivera had lived in the area from four to seven years.
A search of Iowa court records revealed no prior criminal history, and it's unclear whether he had ever been subject to prior deportation proceedings.
Rivera's Facebook page described him as being from Guayabillo, a community of less than 500 people in the Mexican state of Guerrero. It's about a three-hour drive from the resort city of Acapulco.
Rivera was cooperating with investigators and speaking with the help of a translator, according to Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Rick Rahn.
A conviction on first-degree murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole in Iowa, which doesn't have the death penalty.