- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A judge set $5 million bail Wednesday for the immigrant accused of killing an Iowa college student, in a case that’s quickly turning into a major test for both President Trump and immigrant-rights activists.

Cristhian Rivera gave a false identity to the farm where he had worked for nearly four years, allowing him to hold a job and remain in the community where, police say, he killed 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts last month.

“What we learned within the last 24 ours is that our employee was not who he said he was,” said Dane Lang, the manager at Yarrabee Farms, where Mr. Rivera worked for nearly four years — apparently without legal authority the entire time.

The details of his immigration history undercut his lawyer, who had tried to argue his client was being bullied by federal officials starting with Mr. Trump.

“Sad and Sorry Trump has weighed in on this matter in national media which will poison the entire possible pool of jury members,” Allan M. Richards said in court papers requesting a judge impose a gag order requiring the government to refer to Mr. Rivera as a “documented resident.”

Yet there’s no evidence Mr. Rivera has any legal status.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed an immigration detainer on him, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services searched its records and said there’s no hint that Mr. Rivera ever entered the country legally, or that he applied for status once here under a program like the Obama-era DACA deportation amnesty.

“We have found no record in our systems indicating he has any lawful immigration status,” said USCIS spokesman Michael J. Bars.

Mr. Rivera appeared in court under heavy security and flanked by two interpreters, who assisted him by translating between Spanish and English.

He didn’t enter a plea or say anything in his defense. The judge set his next appearance for later this month.

Mr. Rivera could face a sentence of life in prison without parole if found guilty of the killing of Tibbetts, whose disappearance last month commanded national headlines.

Police said they tracked down Mr. Rivera after obtaining a video of the young woman jogging on July 18, and also spotted a car in the vicinity at the time.

They connected the car to Mr. Rivera and, when they interviewed him this week, he admitted to having seen Tibbetts out and about earlier, then on the night of the killing to following her in his car, then parking and running alongside her.

She threatened to call police and he “panicked.” Investigators say he told them he “blocked” his memory from then until he regained his senses in his car later, found her body in his vehicle, then stashed it in a cornfield.

Republicans, including Mr. Trump, have called the killing more evidence of the broken immigration system that allowed Mr. Rivera to be here. Iowa’s governor said it allowed a “predator” to be loosed upon a community.

Immigrant-rights activists counter that Mr. Rivera shouldn’t be the poster child for the broader illegal immigrant community.

“As horrible as this crime was, a crime like this does not represent the contributions, compassion, and work ethic of immigrants, documented or not, who live in the U.S.,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “Our political leaders should refrain from using this heartbreaking incident to further politicize our immigration debate.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren went further, telling CNN that the “real problems” in the immigration system weren’t Tibbetts’ killing but rather illegal immigrant families separated at the border.

“I’m so sorry for the family here,” she said. “But one of the things we need to remember here is that we need an immigration system that is effective. That focuses on where real problems are.”

Mr. Rivera’s lawyer said he came to the U.S. as a juvenile with an education that topped out at the 7th or 8th grade level.

The lawyer also insisted Mr. Rivera had legal status — though he didn’t say how the 24-year-old Mexican earned it. His chief evidence, offered in his motion for a gag order, was that the farm where the young man worked had verified his employment.

Indeed, Yarrabee Farms initially said it ran Mr. Rivera through E-Verify, the government’s voluntary system for checking work authorization. They said he came back a match.

But by Wednesday afternoon the farm said that was all wrong.

First, they said they learned that Mr. Rivera had given them a driver’s license and Social Security card with a false identity. They declined to say what name he had used, but it wasn’t Cristhian Rivera, the name police have identified him as.

The farm also said it figured out it used a Social Security database, but hadn’t run employees through Homeland Security’s E-Verify. A check Wednesday of E-Verify’s database does not even list Yarrabee Farms as a registered user of the program.

“We apologize for any confusion this caused,” said Dane Lang, one of the family members who runs the dairy farm.

He said they’re going to sign up for E-Verify now.

Mr. Lang said despite the dual interpreters in court, Mr. Rivera speaks “passable” English. He also said the suspect gave no indication of what he’s accused of doing.

“This guy stayed around for 35 days after he did this. Nobody noticed anything different,” he said.

The farm said it had received nearly 100 threatening messages by Wednesday morning.

“This is a really scary situation and the unfortunate thing is people are paying attention to me and we’re forgetting about the heartbroken family,” Mr. Lang said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, demanded full details from Homeland Security on how Mr. Rivera managed to get into and remain in the country.

“Based on the information I do have, it seems this murder was preventable,” Mr. Grassley said.

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