President Donald Trump has repeatedly used immigration as a means of rallying voters, both during his campaign and his presidency and is returning to it as a wedge issue for the November elections.
At a rally Tuesday in West Virginia, shortly after news broke that his former campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty of financial fraud, and his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, the president railed against illegal immigration by citing the murder of an Iowa college student, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant.
"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," Trump said. "It should have 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."
Trump was referring to the case of Mollie Tibbetts, 18, who had been missing since July 18 when she went for a jog in Brooklyn, in the Midwestern U.S. state of Iowa, setting off a massive search. Her body was found early Tuesday when Cristhian Bahena Rivera, 24, led authorities to a cornfield not far from Brooklyn. Soon after he was charged with murder.
WATCH: Trump talks to supporters about illegal immigration
Authorities said Rivera is an undocumented immigrant who had been in the area for at least four years, during which time he worked at a nearby dairy farm.
Rivera's Facebook page describes him as being from Guayabillo, a community of less than 500 people in the Mexican state of Guerrero.
Rivera's lawyer disputed that he was undocumented in a court document asking for a gag order, Wednesday. Defense attorney Allan M. Richards stated that employer Craig Lang, a former head of the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the state's three public universities, said he had permission to be in the U.S. Lang is co-owner of the dairy that employed Rivera.
A district court judge denied the gag order.
Iowa's governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, also spoke out about immigration policies in a Tuesday statement.
"As Iowans," she said, "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."
Iowa senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, both Republicans, echoed Reynolds in a joint statement. But Congressman Steve King who represents Brooklyn in the House of Representatives confined himself to sympathy for Tibbetts and her family.
Mollie Tibbetts, our hearts are broken. We all prayed for your safe return. May you now be with the Lord and your family one day find a peace. Justice must now be served. RIP Mollie.— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) August 21, 2018
Republican King is normally an outspoken conservative voice for immigration reform.
In a statement posted on Facebook Tibbett's aunt, Jo Calderwood, called for inclusiveness.
"Please remember EVIL comes in every color," she said. "Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire by friends from all different nations and races.From the bottom of our hearts, thank you."
Iowa has been the focus of the immigration debate before, in April, 2016 when Sarah Root, 21, was killed by a drunk driver who was in the country illegally in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Root became a political rallying point.
"One more child to sacrifice on the altar of open borders," Trump called her during his 2016 campaign.
The American Immigration Council, a lobbying group founded by immigration lawyers, states on its website several studies have shown immigrants are less likely to be arrested for violent crimes than native-born Americans
"For more than a century, innumerable studies have confirmed two simple yet powerful truths about the relationship between immigration and crime: immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime."
But the studies have not prevented the conservative media from prominently reporting a story like Tibbett's. The choice has sparked mixed reactions on Twitter:
Dear Media: You can both be saddened & hurt by the tragedy of Mollie Tibbetts%27 killing, call for her perpetrator to be brought to swift justice, AND opt out of using a tragedy to criminalize all immigrants as guilty.— Alida Garcia (@leedsgarcia) August 22, 2018
I don%27t really care about Cohen or Manafort, but I do care about Mollie Tibbetts. She was an American citizen who was brutally murdered for no reason. I have a daughter her age. If we actually enforced the laws already on the books, she%27d be alive today.— Tracy Jeffords (@TracyJeffords) August 22, 2018
Will the mainstream media continue to cover Mollie Tibbetts’ murder now that they know she was killed by a criminal alien?— Madison Gesiotto (@madisongesiotto) August 21, 2018