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Republicans' Use of Mollie Tibbetts' Death Highlights the Lack of Privacy Protections for Grieving Families

Immigrant rights advocates say the GOP is simply looking to capitalize on the Trump administration's apparent hostility to immigrants to motivate voters ahead of the November mid-term elections.
Mollie Tibbetts.

Mollie Tibbetts. 

The Trump administration's ongoing push to use crimes allegedly perpetrated by undocumented people to rouse support from the president's base has apparently ensnared a grieving Iowa family.

The family and friends of slain 20-year-old University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts have repeatedly said they do not want the Trump administration to use her death to advance an anti-immigrant politic ahead of the mid-term elections in November. But analysts say the law does not protect the privacy of the deceased and bereaved.

Tibbetts' body was found in a cornfield near Brooklyn, Iowa, last week following a fraught month-long search by her family and local authorities. The suspect in the murder is Cristhian Rivera, 24. The Trump administration has said that Rivera is undocumented, a charge that Rivera's attorney, Allan Richards, has denied to the press. Richards has filed for a gag order against the administration, according to a copy of the document obtained by HuffPost.

Tibbetts was white. Rivera is reportedly of Mexican origin.

The Trump administration appears to have seized on Tibbetts' murder as an opportunity to underline ongoing calls to further what many call the White House's hostile policies and rhetoric on immigrants. On Tuesday, just after police identified Tibbetts' body, President Donald Trump spoke of the killing at a rally in West Virginia. "You saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman [Mollie Tibbetts]. Should have never happened," he said. "The immigration laws are such a disgrace." His comments were later tweeted by the official White House account.

Trump's fellow Republicans seemed to toe the party line. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds tweeted, "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." Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, tweeted that "Mollie would be alive if our government had taken immigration enforcement seriously years ago."

The barrage of tweets premised on Rivera's presumed document status come amid what analysts and reporting suggest is a coordinated push by Republicans to capitalize on the Trump administration's apparent hostility toward immigrants to motivate voters ahead of the November mid-term elections.

But immigrant rights advocates say Rivera's origin and documentation shouldn't matter in the context of legal deliberations over the killing; whether Rivera has documents or not, they say it is important to remember that his alleged crime does not extend to an entire ethnicity or class of residency status.

"That a family is dealing with their daughter's murder is heartbreaking and tragic," says Kevin Solis, a spokesman for the immigrant rights group DREAM Team Los Angeles. "I just fail to see where the suspect was born has any bearing on the crime."

At the onset of his presidency, Trump announced the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement Office (VOICE), under the Department of Homeland Security, to publicize crimes ostensibly committed by undocumented people. Critics have accused VOICE of publishing false information and releasing crime victims' information to the public.

Several members of Tibbetts' family have been vocal in expressing their opposition to the use of their loved one's death to advance publicity for the Trump administration's anti-immigrant agenda. Speaking to the Associated Press on Monday, Tibbetts' father, Rob Tibbetts, expressed gratitude toward the local Latino community, which he said was supportive during his search for his daughter. "As far as I'm concerned, they're Iowans with better food," he said.

A woman who identified herself as Tibbetts' second cousin asked on Twitter that her family be allowed to "grieve in peace." She wrote in another tweet: "attn Trumpists: Mollie's death is not political propaganda to bring up your 'build the wall' bullshit. stop."

A request for comment to a government-provided email address for the White House press team bounced back. Neither Reynolds nor Cotton responded to Pacific Standard's requests for comment.

Yet it seems, despite family members' adamant disapproval, the Trump administration faces no legal barriers in using Tibbetts' death to ramp up support for its immigration policies and rhetoric ahead of November. United States law protects against people making public claims—particularly false ones—about private figures. But it doesn't extend those protections to the deceased or the grieving.

"Under American law, Mollie's privacy ended with her death," William E. Lee, a communications law professor at the University of Georgia tells Pacific Standard in an email. "While some states allow the estates of the deceased to control the commercial use of a deceased person's image, name, or likeness (think of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe appearing in television commercials for products such as Mercedes Benz autos), those statutes do not reach political communication."

The only way for Tibbetts' survivors to try to stop the administration's use of their loved one's killing is to advocate against it, as they are apparently doing.

"Mollie's relatives are free to criticize the way the Trump administration is politicizing Mollie's death, but there is nothing legally they can do to stop this. The public comments by Mollie's relatives may lead to wider public outcry that restrains the Trump administration, but there is no legal recourse here."