The murder of Mollie Tibbetts has created a perfect storm in the immigration debate ahead of midterm elections. The details of the case — a young woman kidnapped and brutally killed in small-town Iowa, allegedly at the hands of an illegal immigrant from Mexico, who stuffed her in the trunk of a car then dumped her body in a cornfield — embody the worst fears of immigration hardliners, especially President Trump, who has turned Tibbetts’s murder into a cause célèbre.
Trump invoked Tibbetts last week in West Virginia as proof of a badly flawed immigration system and lax border security. The next day, he released a video of himself on Twitter, arguing that Tibbetts’s killing shows why we need a wall, and why the GOP needs to keep its congressional majority in November: “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.”
The same day, the White House released an emotional video of families whose loved ones were killed, many in horrifying ways, by illegal immigrants. They have been “permanently separated,” in their words.
Democrats have tried to downplay the illegal immigration aspect of the Tibbetts murder and re-focus the public’s attention on the “real problems” of family separation and Trump’s “zero tolerance” border policy, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren said last week when asked about the Tibbetts case on CNN.
But for as much as the Tibbetts case plays into a tidy narrative about the dangers of illegal immigration on the right, and distracts from a tidy narrative about the cruelty of the Trump administration on the left, it also exemplifies the contradictions inherent in our immigration system. Far from suggesting we need to restrict immigration, the case shows why we need to make it easier for migrants to come here and work.
The Alleged Killer Worked In The United States For Years
Consider that the accused killer, 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera, worked at a dairy farm owned by Craig Lane, a prominent state Republican leader. Rivera had been at the farm for four years, living under a false name and staying in a mobile home on the property. A spokesman for the farm said Rivera provided a state-issued government ID and Social Security number when he applied for the job, passed a Social Security-number check, and was considered an “employee in good standing” who showed up to work every day and cooperated with other employees.
Rivera, it turns out, has been living in the United States for seven years, since age 17. His lawyer has said that he diligently filed tax returns with the IRS, albeit under a false identity. He had no driver’s license but did have a car, reportedly registered under someone else’s name, that he drove for years. He even fathered a child with a high school classmate of Tibbetts.
All of that to say, Rivera had substantial interactions with U.S. institutions and significant ties to his local community. Yet he lived for years under the radar. His illegal status didn’t prevent him from doing all the things legal immigrants do — work, start a family, file tax returns. He simply found a way around the law, just as millions of other illegal immigrants do every day, all across the country.
Crossing The Border Illegally Is a Victimless Crime
The lesson to take from all this is not that we need an even bigger wall. Nor will it suffice to turn away from the problem, as Democrats are especially inclined to do right now because it renders their “abolish ICE” rhetoric absurd.
The lesson in the tragedy of the Tibbetts murder is that people who want to come here and work will find a way to do it, regardless of the bureaucratic barriers placed in their path. Need a Social Security number to get hired? A state ID? Anyone with sufficient motivation can procure those things — and migrants, legal and illegal, are a self-selecting group of highly motivated people.
Immigration hardliners will reply, not without reason, that just because some people break the law doesn’t mean we should reward them by changing the law. That’s a fair point, but it only goes so far. After all, we as a nation are currently in the process of doing away with long-standing prohibitions on marijuana for no other reason than a critical mass of people persist in using it despite the prohibitions. We have decided, in effect, that smoking weed is a victimless crime, and therefore prohibiting its use makes no sense.
Suggesting that illegal immigration is also a victimless crime will no doubt be met with howls of outrage from the right, especially after the heinous murder of a young woman by an illegal immigrant, to say nothing of the specious claim that illegal immigrants undercut wages for American workers.
But the reality is that the vast majority of illegal immigrants, like legal immigrants, come here to work. Despite the Trump administration’s rhetoric, they are not more likely than American citizens to commit crime. Yes, they violated our laws by entering the country illegally, but assuming they don’t otherwise violate the law, their illegal presence here amounts to a victimless crime.
It’s easy to dismiss all that in the face of something like the Tibbetts murder. As David French noted last week at National Review Online, the murder of people like Tibbetts and Kate Steinle are particularly painful because “the murderer wasn’t supposed to be here.”
But ending the discussion there is a kind of dodge. That Rivera murdered Tibbetts actually tells us nothing about how we should reform immigration. Far more significant to the immigration debate is the fact that Rivera lived and worked here for years and no one noticed.
It is a stark reminder that the desire of people to come here is greater than our desire to keep them out, and that if we want to fix our immigration system we should start by making it easier for people to come here and work — legally.