Immigrants Deserve Presumption Of Innocence, Too
Reprinted with permission from DCReport.
A young woman named Mollie Tibbetts was murdered last month in Iowa. She went for her daily jog in the hamlet of Brooklyn, where she was home from college for the summer, and she didn’t return. Her body was found earlier this week in a field.
That’s simply awful. Her family and friends are likely bent, if not broken, by their grief; her parents will struggle to recover from the loss of a child. That’s especially true in the case of a well-liked young woman — a psychology major at the University of Iowa — whose life was stripped away by a predator.
At this point, the narrative shifts to the criminal justice system, which is supposed to operate on behalf of all of us to bring the perpetrator to account. In our democratic system, that process should be efficient, but also fair and impartial. No man or woman is above the law, but no man or woman is below it, either. Each person should be treated equally before the bar of justice.
Unfortunately, though, that’s not the way our system really works. The poor and marginalized are assumed guilty. People of color come before the bar of justice weighed down by the prejudices of police, prosecutors and jurors. Black and brown defendants are assessed through a lens distorted by stereotypes.
Tibbetts, 20, was young, white and attractive. Her accused killer is Cristhian Rivera, a 24-year-old Mexican who came to this country without papers as a teenager. While published reports have indicated that he led authorities to Tibbetts’ body, he has not been found guilty. His trial has not even begun.
You’d think that the nation’s highest-ranking officials would be models of prudence, judicious in their rhetoric, cautious before assuming guilt or assigning blame. Instead, they are leading the lynch mob — indicting not only Rivera, but all undocumented immigrants. Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statement tinged with xenophobia:
“As Iowans, we are heartbroken, and we are angry,” she 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 (to) bring justice to Mollie’s killer.”
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s senior senator, weighed in with a similar view.
Then there was President Donald J. Trump himself, whose campaign for the presidency was built on white nationalism, crude racial stereotypes and the denigration of undocumented immigrants. Perhaps because special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation is circling ever closer to him, Trump seemed in a hurry to throw red meat to his base. As soon as police arrested Rivera, the president jumped to use it to gin up the xenophobia of his loyalists.
“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 said. “It 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.”
Those statements make it very difficult for Rivera to get a fair trial, which is supposed to be a fundamental right in our democracy. Such heated rhetoric also makes it more likely that undocumented workers all over the country will be unfairly tarred for crimes they did not commit. The president has worked overtime to turn the facts upside down: In fact, immigrants commit fewer crimes as a group than the native born.
Rivera may well be guilty of Tibbetts’ murder. If he is, he should certainly pay for his crime. But he should be condemned by hard evidence assessed by jurors who are willing to look beyond the circumstances of his entry into the country. He should not be dragooned by small-minded nativists who insist that undocumented workers from Mexico are murderers and rapists.
And Mollie Tibbetts’ memory should not be associated with a campaign of xenophobia and fear-mongering. Allow her, President Trump, to rest in peace.