How Mollie Tibbetts's Mother Rejected the Anti-Immigrant Politics Some Expected of Her


It is not unusual for the parents of those killed by undocumented immigrants to become anti-immigration crusaders. They’re useful, sympathetic props by President Donald Trump—who calls them “Angel Families”—and others on the right to advance an agenda that paints the undocumented as ruthless monsters, shameless leeches, and stone-cold criminals.

Laura Calderwood was a prime candidate for Angel mom status.

Calderwood’s 20-year-old daughter, Mollie Tibbetts, was murdered in July. She was missing for over a month before her alleged killer—Cristhian Bahena Rivera—led investigators to her body, left in an inconspicuous Iowa cornfield with several stab wounds. Rivera is an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

Tibbetts’s story gained national attention in the at the end of a summer riddled with immigration crises: The Trump administration introduced their controversial family separation policy, which separated over 1,000 children of asylum seekers from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. Heavy outrage, scrutiny, and nationwide protest forced the administration to suspend the slapdash policy. Tibbetts’s murder could have been perfect PR solution for an administration desperate to defend its hardline approach to undocumented immigrants; if only Tibbetts’s family played along.

They didn’t. Instead, Tibbetts’s father wrote an op-ed and her aunts and cousins social media posts criticized racists politicians who used Tibbetts’s murder for their ideological gain.

Calderwood has been less public in her response to the attention her daughter’s murder received, but a new article by Terrence McCoy at the Washington Post offers a look into her disdain at the Republicans’ attempts to use Tibbetts as a political pawn.

The day it was broadcast that Mollie was found, [Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds] called and wept with her on the phone. Laura had been moved by her tenderness — and still was — but then, on that same day, Reynolds issued a public statement. Gone was the empathetic woman from the phone call and instead was someone now using the words “predator” and “broken immigration system.” The next statement was even harsher, this one from Trump. He’d never called Laura, knew little about her daughter, but had no problem, Laura thought, using Mollie’s death to try to end immigration policies he now referred to as “pathetic.”
Laura hated the sound of Mollie’s name coming from his mouth. His words were the opposite of who Mollie was, advancing a “cause she vehemently opposed,” as her father, Rob Tibbetts, who’s separated from Laura, wrote in a newspaper column soon after her funeral. She’d wanted to welcome all immigrants who needed help.

And it was with her daughter Mollie’s politics in mind that Calderwood took in her son’s friend Ulises, a high school senior whose family worked at the same dairy farm that Rivera did. In fact, Ulises’s cousin has a child with Rivera, and his family treated Rivera like one of their own.

Ulises’s family fled the Iowa dairy farm and the state entirely once news broke that Rivera worked there. They were bombarded with hate mail and racist phone calls, including a robocall by a white supremacist group that preposterously claimed Tibbetts would have advocated for the mass extinction of Latinx immigrants to avenge her murder. Ulises’s mother even experienced a racist incident at the gas station. The family decided to move to Illinois, but Ulises wanted to finish high school with his friends. That’s when Ulises’s friend and Calderwood’s son, Scott, asked if Ulises could stay with them.

Laura thought of Mollie. She would argue that the farmworkers didn’t deserve this, that they were only trying to earn a living. What would she say about Ulises? Bring him in? Laura thought that his father may be undocumented and worried about attracting unwanted attention, but again, what would Mollie say?

Ulises now lives with Calderwood, where he’s treated like a member of the family. The easy presence of Ulises—a boy who grapples with his own sense of irrational shame about his limited degrees of separation between himself and the man who killed Tibbetts—in Calderwood’s life seems puzzling, as humans are fickle and known to reject others for far less than vague familial connections to the alleged murderer of one’s child. It’s likely especially perplexing to those who expected Calderwood to have ditched her lefty politics and become a mouthpiece for the right’s anti-immigrant screeds.

But for Calderwood, the best way to celebrate her daughter wasn’t with hate, it was with empathy, love, and care. And caring for Ulises has given Calderwood a new lease on life. This was especially explicit when Ulises suffered a basketball injury.

Ulises — and how he was doing — was just about all [Calderwood] thought about for the rest of the day, until it was finally time to leave work. She went to a nearby Mexican restaurant, bought him the dinner he had requested and headed home, feeling good, feeling useful, filled with purpose. She wanted to be the one to care for him. She needed to be the one to care for him. She’d had three children for a reason, and here was a chance now, in a small way, perhaps, to try to partly fill the void.

Read the rest of the Washington Post piece here.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin