MONTEZUMA, Iowa — The lawyer for the immigrant accused of killing Mollie Tibbetts, an Iowa college student, disputed the federal government’s claims on Wednesday that his client was in the country illegally and said President Trump’s comments about the case could prejudice future jurors.
“For sad and sorry Trump to say that they’re illegal without even giving them a hearing is totally wrong,” the lawyer, Allan M. Richards, said in an interview after a court hearing.
The discovery of a body believed to be Ms. Tibbetts’s this week and the charging of Cristhian Rivera, 24, in her death marked a tragic turn in a case that has haunted this rural Iowa county for weeks. Ms. Tibbetts, 20, disappeared after going for a jog on July 18 in nearby Brooklyn, Iowa.
Mr. Rivera, a Mexican immigrant who federal officials said was in the country illegally, was ordered held on a $5 million cash bond during a brief court appearance on Wednesday afternoon. A federal immigration detainer was also issued in his case.
Mr. Rivera worked for years on a farm owned by a prominent Republican family, and his arrest was quickly cited by conservative politicians as tragic proof of a flawed immigration system.
“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,” Mr. Trump said at a campaign rally on Tuesday night.
Gov. Kim Reynolds of Iowa, a Republican up for election in November, said in a statement that “we are angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community.”
Mr. Richards, the defense lawyer, said his client came to the United States at 17 with the equivalent of a middle-school education. He said he had worked on a dairy farm and “complied with his documented status since arriving in the U.S.A.”
But Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, said the agency placed an immigration detainer on Mr. Rivera on Tuesday after his arrest on murder charges, a move required for him to be turned over to federal immigration authorities after clearing any criminal proceedings in Iowa. He said Mr. Rivera was “an illegal alien from Mexico.”
Mr. Rivera used someone else’s valid identification, which may have been stolen, to pass the E-Verify check, according to a senior homeland security official who was not authorized to discuss the case.
Claims by Mr. Rivera’s employer, Yarrabee Farms, that the federal government cleared Mr. Rivera for work raised questions about the accuracy of the E-Verify system long lauded by Republicans as a way to prevent the hiring of undocumented workers.
“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,” Dane Lang, a spokesman for the company, said in a statement. “On Monday, the authorities visited our farm and talked to our employees. We have cooperated fully with their investigation.”
Though President Trump has argued for stronger border enforcement to protect against crimes committed by immigrants, research has shown little evidence that there is a connection.
Several studies, over many years, have concluded that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Researchers say that there is also no support for the idea that undocumented immigrants commit a disproportionate share of crime.
In the hours before Mr. Rivera’s court appearance, Ms. Tibbetts’s family released a statement saying, “Our hearts are broken.”
“On behalf of Mollie’s entire family, we thank all of those from around the world who have sent their thoughts and prayers for our girl,” the statement said. “We know that many of you will join us as we continue to carry Mollie in our hearts forever.”