Education

University of Iowa conservative org leaders distance themselves from Tibbetts-immigration debate

UI Turning Point USA executives report stepping down

The Pentacrest, including the Old Capitol, Jessup Hall, Macbride Hall, MacLean Hall, and Schaeffer Hall, in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Pentacrest, including the Old Capitol, Jessup Hall, Macbride Hall, MacLean Hall, and Schaeffer Hall, in an aerial photograph in Iowa City on Thursday, July 14, 2016. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Leaders atop the University of Iowa’s Turning Point USA chapter announced on social media Friday they’re resigning their posts with the conservative student group following the national organization’s politicization of UI sophomore Mollie Tibbetts’ death.

UI Turning Point leaders also reported on social media they’ve rebuffed insistence their campus host an immigration rally in light of Tuesday’s announcement that investigators found the missing student’s body and arrested an immigrant they believe killed her.

“We respectfully decline this invitation,” according to a Friday morning letter from executive board members with UI Turning Point USA. “We find it in poor taste to exploit the death of a Hawkeye to suit a political agenda.”

The letter also referenced crosshairs Turning Point USA has caught itself in nationally across multiple social media platforms in the days since Tibbetts’ body was found – largely around the issue of legal and illegal immigration, as attorneys wrangle over 24-year-old suspect Christhian Bahena Rivera’s status.

“Leftists boycotted, screamed and cried when illegal immigrants were temporarily separated from their parents,” Candace Owens, communications director for the national Turning Point USA, wrote on Twitter hours after news broke of Rivera’s arrest. “What will they do for Mollie Tibbetts? What did they do for Kate Steinle? They will NEVER see their parents again.”

One commenter on that post, identifying as a member of Tibbetts’ family, reamed Owens with expletives and said, “We are not so (expletive) small-minded that we generalize a whole population based on some bad individuals ... take her name out of your mouth.”

UI’s Turning Point representatives in their letter Friday condemned Owens’ exchange with the family, calling it “harassment.”

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“This board also extends sympathy to the member of Mollie’s family that dealt with public harassment from Turning Point USA Communications Director Candace Owens,” according to the UI chapter’s letter. “We ask that your exchange with Owens represent only herself and not conservatives as a whole.”

Tibbetts’ death, though, has become a flashpoint for many conservatives in the immigration debate including President Donald Trump, who has spoken about Tibbetts’ death in arguing for tighter immigration laws.

But the UI Turning Point leaders distanced themselves from that rhetoric in their Friday letter, going so far as to imply the national group deceived them.

“When members of this board took on their roles, they were told that Turning Point USA would focus solely on fiscal issues,” according to the letter. “Our chapter does not take responsibility for statements made by Turning Point USA regarding immigration or other social issues.

“With that being said, executive board members have stepped down from their positions and association with Turning Point USA.”

The local group seemed to express some confusion about the proposed UI campus rally and its origins. In the Friday letter, it reported the chapter president had been contacted by a Turning Point USA field director, who insisted the national group’s founder Charlie Kirk and Owens visit UI for an immigration event. The letter didn’t specify a time or date.

“Should this event go on, it does so without the support of this executive board,” according to the letter. “We are all shocked, hurting, and in need of more respect than what was given to us by Turning Point USA.”

Later in the day, however, the UI chapter issued a pseudo-correction and apology.

“It has come to our attention that students not affiliated (with) University of Iowa Turning Point USA were in contact with Turning Point USA to plan to bring Charlie (Kirk) and speak on illegal immigration,” according to the Twitter and Facebook messages. “It was a misunderstanding on our end that the event was already planned when it had just been in the works with students not affiliated with UI TPUSA. We sincerely apologize to Charlie and Candace for this misunderstanding.”

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The UI student organization reports seven total members on the university website, although it does not name them. Members didn’t immediately respond to The Gazette’s request for comment sent to their social media pages, and it’s unclear whether the correction and apology alter the leaders’ plans to step down.

The group also doesn’t provide any bylaws or constitution on the UI student organization website.

The national organization, which also didn’t respond to a request for comment, retweeted and shared the UI group’s apology.

Turning Point USA made news in Eastern Iowa earlier this year when several Cornell College students accused that campus of liberal bias in its rejection of a request to start a Cornell chapter of the national group.

Cornell student senators held hearings on the request but eventually blocked a Cornell version of Turning Point USA, founded in 2012 with representation today on more than 1,200 high school and college campuses — including UI, Iowa State University and Kirkwood Community College.

The Cornell student senators noted the group has been criticized nationally for trending toward the alt-right. Other Iowa colleges that have rejected Turning Point include Drake University and Wartburg College.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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