Arrest of illegal immigrant in Mollie Tibbetts murder fuels GOP calls to strengthen laws

The revelation that the suspect in the death of Mollie Tibbetts, the University of Iowa student who disappeared last month, is an illegal immigrant has swiftly fueled Republican calls to strengthen border security.

The immediate reaction from the political world suggests the case could reverberate for months -- in the form of legislative fights and campaign trail disputes, much like the 2015 death of Kate Steinle fanned the immigration debate flames.

As Democrats call to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Republicans cited the Tibbetts case as another example of why more enforcement is needed.

“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,” President Trump said at a rally Tuesday night in West Virginia. “We’ve had a huge impact but the laws are so bad, the immigration laws are such a disgrace, we’re getting them changed but we have to get more Republicans.”

The suspect, 24-year-old Christhian Rivera, worked at a farm for the past several years less than three miles from where Tibbetts was staying the night she vanished in July.

Authorities announced the arrest Tuesday of Rivera, who led them to the body of Tibbetts in a cornfield in a rural part of the county. He has been charged with first-degree murder, and is being held on a $1 million cash bond.

MOLLIE TIBBETTS MURDER SUSPECT WORKED LESS THAN 3 MILES FROM WHERE SHE WAS STAYING 

Rivera’s alleged involvement spurred overnight comparisons to the Steinle case -- she was killed on a San Francisco pier after being shot by illegal immigrant Jose Ines Garcia Zarate. Garcia Zarate, who had been deported a number of times, was found not guilty of murder last year after his defense argued that the shooting was accidental.

But the Steinle case, coming just weeks after Trump announced he was running for president, put illegal immigration front-and-center in the national debate. 

Steinle’s death also led to the introduction of Kate’s Law, which would increase punishments for illegal re-entry into the U.S. The law passed the House last year but has yet to be taken up by the Senate. Another bill, "No Sanctuary for Criminals Act," that would cut grants to so-called "sanctuary cities” that refuse to cooperate with immigration officials, met a similar fate. 

But among Democrats, momentum has been building to scrap the enforcement agency completely.

The once-fringe call to abolish ICE has been picked up by top 2020 Democratic prospects, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. The party has focused on the separation of families after the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on arresting all illegal border crossers.

But John Cox, a Republican California gubernatorial candidate, said that Tibbetts' death was “one more tragic example of a senseless loss that should never have happened, similar to Kate Steinle’s heartbreaking death in San Francisco” and hit Democrats for their “rash” proposal.

“As a father of four daughters, it crushes my heart to see yet another family go through this nightmare,” Cox said. “Those who want to abolish ICE need to consider the consequences of their rash proposal.”

Trump has regularly referred to Steinle as well as other deaths of Americans at the hands of illegal immigrants as he has pushed for tougher immigration laws and a border wall. He has sought to frame November’s midterms as a referendum on immigration policies, particularly as more Democrats focus instead on the plight of illegal immigrants.

“A Blue Wave means Crime and Open Borders. A Red Wave means Safety and Strength!” he tweeted Tuesday morning.

Trump has counted on the support of “Angel Families” -- families who had loved ones killed by illegal immigrants. He has held a number of events where those families have told their stories and called for action to prevent more such deaths.

Vice President Pence also weighed in Wednesday, noting Rivera’s illegal status and promising that “justice will be served.”

Former ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan, on “Fox and Friends” Wednesday, blasted Democrats for their inaction on the issue.

"There's certain politicians like your politicians in New York, Sen. Gillibrand, Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo, [California Sen.] Kamala Harris, who don't want to enfoce immigration law," Homan, a Fox News contributor, said.

“This is why we need a wall, this is why need to fix the loopholes. I’m sick and tired of talking about this issue and meeting yet another Angel Mom that's been created at the hands of an illegal alien,” he said. “We got to stop politicizing this issue and fix it once and for all.”

Iowa GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst said they agreed with Gov. Kim Reynolds when she said that “we are angry that our immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community.”

“Too many Iowans have been lost at the hands of criminals who broke our immigration laws. We cannot allow these tragedies to continue,” Grassley and Ernst said in a statement.

The statement also noted that they had pushed for “Sarah’s Law,” named after Sarah Root -- an Iowan who died after a car crash with a vehicle driven by an illegal immigrant driver in 2016. That law would require ICE to take custody of  an illegal immigrant charged with a crime resulting in the death or serious injury of a person. 

More concrete proposals from lawmakers and the White House are likely to come once the details of Rivera’s illegal presence in the country are better known. The Des Moines Register reported that Rivera worked at a farm with several owners, including Dane Lang, whose brother Craig is a former 2018 GOP candidate for secretary of agriculture.

But Lang said in a statement that Rivera was an “employee in good standing” and had passed the government's E-Verify employment verification system, designed to check whether a potential employee is legally allowed to work in the U.S.

Fox News' Andrew Keiper and Cristina Corbin contributed to this report.