Political Divides Deepen in the Wake of Mollie Tibbetts' Death

Aug 24, 2018

This week, the murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts by a man who is believed to be an undocumented immigrant left the political landscape sharply divided.

On this News Buzz edition of River to River, host Ben Kieffer talks to Chris Larimer, professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, about the response to the Tibbetts case by politicians from Iowa and across the nation, including Senator Ernst’s call to reconsider “Sarah’s law."

"Sarah's Law" is a piece of legislation that would require U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take custody of an undocumented immigrant who is in the country illegally and is charged with a crime. 

Although multiple studies show that undocumented immigrants commit substantially fewer crimes than native-born American citizens, Larimer says it’s not the data that counts in politics.

“People’s views on policy are so polarized at this point. They’re so entrenched within their partisan identification that you’re not going to be persuading anybody to change their views on immigration policy.”

However, Larimer says that there are moments like the death of Mollie Tibbetts that create openings for policy change.

“Right now you are seeing Republicans talking about it a lot more as a way to get some traction on the immigration debate,” Larimer says. “What people are persuaded by are those individual, identifiable stories, those easy to remember narratives. That seems to be more likely to cause shifts in public opinion or can allow for policy change.”

Iowa politicians who have weighed in include Governor Kim Reynolds, who released a statement condemning the current immigration system within hours of the discovery of Tibbetts’ body, and Senator Ernst, who called for “Sarah’s law” to be reconsidered.

On Wednesday, coverage of federal trials for both Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen remained front-page news in most major media outlets with the exception of Fox News, which had a headline for the Mollie Tibbetts case at the top of its website.

“This speaks to just how polarizing things are,” Larimer says. “You think about where people get their news source anymore and they’re getting it from sources they agree with. If you’re going to particular websites and seeing different sets of headlines, that only further entrenches your own policy views of the world.”

“It makes the possibility for agreement or coming together on certain things pretty remote.”

Other segments this hour include: Iowa Public Radio reporter Kate Payne on the developments in the Tibbetts case this week; Brain Morelli of The Gazette shares his reporting on the NewBo Evovle festival in Cedar Rapids that's reported to have lost $2.3 million dollars in its first year; and conversations from the University of Iowa's International Writing Program welcome dinner.