By Gina Martinez
August 23, 2018

Republicans have quickly made a political issue of the revelation that the man suspected of murdering 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts was a Mexican national who police say was an undocumented immigrant, leading family and friends to publicly speak out against the politicization of her death.

The massive five-week search for the University of Iowa student ended in tragedy on Tuesday, when investigators announced the arrest of Cristhian Rivera, 24, who told police he followed TIbbetts as she jogged and dumped her body in a cornfield not far from where she was last seen on July 18.

Rivera’s reported undocumented status became a hot-button issue with Republicans almost immediately. Hours after investigators announced the arrest, President Donald Trump weighed in, implying stronger immigration laws would have prevented Tibbetts’ death. Trump told supporters at a West Virginia rally that the country’s immigration laws are a “disgrace” and said “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” referring to TIbbetts.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, opened her press briefing offering condolences to the Tibbetts family and commenting on the immigration status of the suspected killer. “Sadly the individual believed to be responsible for this murder is a illegal immigrant, making this an unfortunate reminder of why we need to strengthen our immigration laws,” she told reporters.

Former Republican Speaker of the house, Newt Gingrich said that “if Mollie Tibbetts is a household name by October, Democrats will be in deep trouble.”

While the Tibbetts family gave an official statement on Wednesday afternoon asking for privacy as they grieved and thanking those “from around the world who have sent their thoughts and prayers for our girl”, other family members and friends are speaking out about the quick politicization of her death.

Tibbetts’ aunt, Billie Jo Calderwood, shared a message on Facebook on Tuesday.

“Please remember, Evil comes in EVERY color. Our family has been blessed to be surrounded by love, friendship and support throughout this entire ordeal by friends from all different nations and races. From the bottom of our hearts, thank you.”

Calderwood also shared a status from one of Mollie’s friends, Kasie Schultz Taylor, that said Tibbetts would not approve of the current political coversation surrounding her death.

“Please do not compound the atrocity of what happened to her by adding racism and hate to the equation..Anyone that knew Mollie knows she wouldn’t want that. Respect each other, support each other but most importantly BE KIND!”

Tibbetts’ former day camp co-worker Jarrett Rose, 17, also weighed in. He said he thinks its too soon to politicize Mollie’s death. “I think right now our focus in on paying Mollie the respect she deserved,” Rose tells TIME. “I think there will be discussions about politics that are important, but now is not the time. We cannot disregard her life by using it as political propaganda, its not appropriate.”

Write to Gina Martinez at gina.martinez@timeinc.com.

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