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The Stories of Mollie and Sarah are Cautionary For The Rest of Us. But There is More…
When Mollie Tibbetts went missing from her home town of Brooklyn, Iowa on July 18, the response from friends, neighbors, and total strangers was astonishing – but only if you were not from Iowa. Iowa is still the kind of place where strangers say “Hello! How are you?” and neighbors are there to help if trouble strikes. If you have a flat tire on a country road, ten strangers are likely to stop to see if you need help.
In the case of Mollie Tibbetts, hundreds of people came out to help look for her, hand out flyers and posters with Mollie’s photo and the word “MISSING” across the top, and help in any other way they could. Search and rescue teams scoured the fields and woods, and hundreds of volunteers, wearing Mollie’s picture on buttons and T-shirts, covered the state with flyers and posters in store windows, on cars, on fences, and on billboards. To the hundreds of volunteers who helped with the search throughout the state, she was just “Mollie”. It was as if everyone knew her and took her disappearance very personally.
A small reward for her safe return soon grew into a fund of nearly $400,000. And when the Iowa State Fair opened in August, Mollie’s family was there with 100,000 flyers, enlisting as many of the million or so people who attended the fair to help find Mollie and bring her home.
But Mollie did not come home. On the very night she went missing, she was stalked and brutally murdered, then her body was hidden deep in a cornfield until she was found six weeks later.
The Iowa Way – It’s Changing
Iowa is a quiet place, mostly rural with miles and miles of corn and soy fields, pig farms, and a pastoral sense of peace and safety. Even the cities are slower paced than America’s larger metropolitan centers. And in the country, such as the small town of 1,500 people where Mollie lived, people are friendly, they know each other, they leave their homes unlocked, and often leave their cars running as they run into a store for a quick purchase.
Brooklyn is no different from hundreds of other small towns and cities throughout Iowa. It’s the kind of place you want your kids to grow up in, a place where they can get their values right.
But like much of America, Brooklyn is changing. With the murder of Mollie Tibbetts, Brooklyn, Iowa lost some of its innocence. It no longer feels as safe as it did at the beginning of July.
Iowa and the Immigration Debate
The man who admitted to murdering Mollie has also admitted to being an illegal immigrant from Mexico, with a girlfriend and an anchor baby. He is one of many new immigrants now living in Iowa, and he, like many others, came here illegally. He got a job using a false name, and worked on a family-owned farm that provided him with a trailer home, rent free. No one knows yet whether he knew Mollie, or had seen her around the small town, whether she had been targeted or was just a random impulse on the part of the suspect, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The influx of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States has been a political issue for many years. In 2002, the number of illegals here was anywhere between 11 million and 20 million, depending on your source of information. Iowa, which has a population of about three million, has taken its share of them. In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated that “unauthorized” immigrants comprised about 2 percent of Iowa’s labor force, which at that time numbered 1.7 million.
Three years later, in a report by the American Immigration Council, it was estimated that there were 40,000 illegal immigrants in Iowa. More than than 3,000 of them had applied for DACA status. But the report makes no distinction between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants, except where specifically noted. (For example, it lists all the contributions “immigrants” make to Iowa’s workforce and tax revenues, lumping legal immigrants and illegals together in the numbers, without qualification.) For this reason, the report is disingenuous, at the very least.
The difference between legal immigrants and illegal immigrants is significant, although those who want to protect illegal status argue otherwise. One of the key benefits of the process is to screen legal immigration applicants for health issues. The process helps to prevent them from bringing diseases into the country. Over the last two decades, the rush of illegal immigrants, who avoided health screening, came a resurgence of diseases that we thought had been eliminated in the U.S., diseases like whooping cough, measles, mumps, and even leprosy.
As far back as 2007, the Federation for Immigration Reform reported that the effects of illegal immigration put an annual fiscal burden on Iowa taxpayers of about $241 million, or roughly $172 per native-Iowan household. The rapid influx of illegal immigrants into Iowa was facilitated by a program called the New Iowans Project, which began in 2000. According to the report, the money was spent on support for illegal immigrants in Iowa for education, healthcare, and incarceration. (According to the report, “the uncompensated cost of incarcerating deportable illegal aliens in Iowa’s state and local prisons amounts to nearly $4.9 million a year”.)
Until April 10, 2018, liberal support for lax immigration policy was protected by fifteen unofficial sanctuary cities throughout Iowa. On that date, Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law Senate File 481, which requires cooperation between local police and federal U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in cases involving the immigration status of an individual under investigation by ICE. The law prohibits local law enforcement from interfering in any ICE investigation of a person suspected of being in the country illegally. If a city or county fails to comply with the law, then the state can withhold “any state funds” for up until 90 days, before an appeals process can be initiated.
In particular, all law enforcement officials are expected to comply with ICE “detainer requests” to hold illegal aliens who have been taken into custody for violating local laws, and who are suspected of being in the country illegally, until ICE agents can come and take him or her into custody.
Another Cautionary Tale
The passage of Senate File 481 is a large step forward for Iowa, but it did not help Mollie. Nor did it help Sarah Root, another high-profile murder of a young women in Iowa by illegal immigrants. Early on the morning of January 31, 2016, Sarah was driving home from a party celebrating her graduation from college. As she waited for a traffic light to turn green, her car was slammed from behind by a pick-up truck, driven by a 19-year old illegal immigrant who was street racing – very fast and very drunk. With a blood alcohol level of 0.241, more than three times the legal limit, he smashed his truck into the back of Sarah’s vehicle with such force that she traveled 800 feet beyond the intersection before coming to rest, and the rear of her car was fused to the front. Sarah didn’t have a chance.
The judge at the suspect’s hearing released him from custody on $50,000 bail, which meant that he had to post only $5,000 to get out of jail. A relative made bail. Judge Jeffrey Marcuzzo was incredibly naïve to think that, given the severity of the crime, the suspect was not a potential flight risk. He was ordered back for mandatory drug screening on Feb. 8, but, not surprisingly, failed to appear. And three days after making bail, he disappeared and is still missing.
Mollie’s murderer was not released, but was held on $5 million bond and remanded to custody. The story is not over. There will be a trial, and there will be fallout in the discussion of immigration. The stories of Mollie and Sarah are cautionary for the rest of us. But there is more.
Mollie’s family does not want the discussion to get political, and seems to consider the linking of immigration policy to Mollie’s death an insult to her memory. Mollie’s aunt, Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, put it succinctly and articulately when she posted on Facebook her feelings about the turn the discussion had taken: “Especially for those of you who did not know her in life, you do not get to usurp Mollie and her legacy for your racist, false narrative now that she is no longer with us. We hereby reclaim our Mollie. . . . You do not have permission to callously use this tragedy to demonize an entire population for the acts of one man . . . . Mollie was murdered because a man denied her right to say no.”
In the best of worlds, the wishes of a family in grief would be respected. But the sad truth is that this issue is larger than the brutal and totally uncalled-for death of a promising young woman. It is larger than the political positions of family and friends, however much they want to embrace humanity with acceptance. The love and respect that we should have for humanity come to a screeching halt when brutality, murder, and a perverted sense of entitlement trump the life and liberty of others.
So the debate will go on, and Mollie is destined to be a part of it, with or without her family’s consent.
Iowa as a Symbol of a Proud Nation
Iowa was built by immigrants, people who came from Germany, Ireland, the British Isles, Norway, Scotland, Denmark, and elsewhere. They brought their languages and their cultures, but they also brought with them a great desire to become Americans. They came through legal channels, passing the health screenings and jumping through the various hoops of U.S. immigration requirements. They learned the language and customs of their new home and made Iowa a unique place, at once diverse and harmonized, people who learned to live together as Americans.
The death of Mollie Tibbetts will be remembered for a very long time by the people of Iowa. Their coming together for her represented the sense of community that most Iowans feel for their state and the people who live there. Sarah Root will also be remembered, although her case released far less national publicity. She will be remembered for the law that was named for her, Sarah’s Law, the No Sanctuary for Criminals Act. Although it passed the U.S. House in June 2016, it has yet to pass the U.S. Senate, where it still sits as part of a larger immigration bill.
The stories of Mollie and Sarah will be cautionary tales that reach into the heart of who we are as Americans. The deep, heartbreaking problems caused by the continual flow of illegal immigrants into America’s heartland are far from over. And the controversy over the solution rages all around the nation, blocking rational discussion and the possibility of finding urgently needed solutions.
Nevertheless, the stories of Sarah and Mollie are lessons for America on many levels. On the one hand, they are an urgent cry for Americans to better understand how evil that could have been prevented was not, largely because of the basic naiveté of otherwise good people. On the other hand, they can demonstrate how a community – or a nation – can come together to solve its problems, help the wounded, and heal itself.
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