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Questions surround immigration status of Iowa murder suspect

By Susan McFarland and Daniel Uria
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, pictured here in an undated booking photo, has been charged with one count of first-degree murder for the death of 20-year-old Iowa college student, Mollie Tibbetts. Photo courtesy Iowa Department of Public Safety | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/b98c01af5a5f6fc46672e210d33756b6/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Cristhian Bahena Rivera, pictured here in an undated booking photo, has been charged with one count of first-degree murder for the death of 20-year-old Iowa college student, Mollie Tibbetts. Photo courtesy Iowa Department of Public Safety | License Photo

Aug. 22 (UPI) -- The lawyer for a man accused of killing Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts said Tuesday that his client was living in the United States legally, but the man's employer said he used false identification to get his job.

Attorney Allan M. Richards said 24-year-old Cristhian Bahena Rivera came to the United States at the age of 17 with the equivalent of a middle-school education and "complied with his documented status since arriving in the U.S.A," as he worked at an Iowa dairy farm, The New York Times reported.

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Rivera was arrested and charged with one count of first-degree murder for Tibbett's death. Authorities said the 20-year-old University of Iowa student, who disappeared July 18 after going for an evening jog, was killed and dumped in a corn field.

During a Tuesday news conference, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Assistant Director Mitch Mortvedt said the agency based its classification of Rivera as an illegal immigrant on information from the Department of Homeland Security.

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"We worked with Homeland Security Investigations and they have him as an illegal alien," Mortvedt said. "DCI doesn't work immigration stuff so anytime this stuff comes up we defer to them."

Federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement spokesman Shawn Neudauer, disputed Richards' statement, saying Rivera was "an illegal alien from Mexico."

Neudauer noted the agency placed an immigration detainer on Rivera after his arrest, which required him to be turned over to federal immigration authorities after pending criminal proceedings in Iowa.

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Rivera's employer at Yarrabee Farms initially said it had no indication he was in the country illegally because he passed a government background check. The dairy farm said it considered Rivera an "employee in good standing."

"This individual has worked at our farms for four years, was vetted through the government's E-Verify system, and was an employee in good standing," Yarrabee Farms said in a statement. "On Monday, the authorities visited our farm and talked to our employees. We have cooperated fully with their investigation."

But on Wednesday, co-owner Dane Lang said Rivera submitted a false state identification and Social Security card. Both passed the Social Security Administration's verification system, but did not belong to Rivera.

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Richards said statements made by law enforcement officials, President Donald Trump and other lawmakers which labeled Rivera as an undocumented immigrant could prejudice future jurors against him.

"For sad and sorry Trump to say that they're illegal without even giving them a hearing is totally wrong," Richards said.

At a rally Tuesday night in West Virginia, Trump said Tibbetts' death "should've never happened," and called immigration laws "'a disgrace."

"You heard about today, with the illegal alien coming in from, very sadly, from Mexico," Trump said. "And you saw what happened to that incredible, beautiful young woman. ... The laws are so bad. The immigration laws are a such a disgrace."

Trump has long condemned unlawful immigration and said migrants often commit crimes once they reach the United States.

"The loss of Mollie Tibbetts is a devastating reminder that we must urgently fix our broken immigration laws," a White House tweet said Tuesday.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds also made reference to Rivera's immigrant status as she demanded justice for Tibbetts.

"As Iowans, 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," Reynolds said in a statement.

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