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Cristhian Rivera, 24, accused of killing University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, looks to his attorney Allan Richards, as he makes his initial appearance at the Poweshiek County Courthouse in Montezuma, Iowa, U.S., August 22, 2018. Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette/Pool via REUTERS

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By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) - The arrest of a man who U.S. authorities have said is an illegal immigrant on charges of murdering an Iowa college student has thrust the case into the debate on immigration policy, with President Donald Trump blaming Mollie Tibbetts' death on weak laws.

Christhian Rivera, 24, was arrested and charged on Monday with the murder of 20-year-old Tibbetts, who disappeared in July while out jogging. A woman's body has been found but has not yet been positively identified, authorities have said.

Law enforcement officials told reporters on Monday that Rivera was Mexican and in the country illegally. However, his defence lawyer said in a court filing on Wednesday that Rivera had legal status.

Trump, who has taken a tough stance on immigration and referred to some Mexican migrants as criminals and rapists in his 2016 election campaign, made a reference to the Tibbetts case at a rally in West Virginia on Tuesday.

"Should never have happened," said Trump. "The immigration laws are such a disgrace."

The political fallout from the killing could reverberate across Iowa, a swing state that has a hotly contested gubernatorial race and where Democrats see a chance at taking two of the 23 seats they need to win back from Republicans in November's midterms to gain a majority in the House of Representatives.

Iowa Republican Governor Kim Reynolds echoed Trump's approach, blaming Tibbetts' death on the nation's immigration laws.

"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," she said in a Tuesday statement.

But Republican members of Congress and congressional candidates in closely competitive Iowa districts were more guarded, perhaps wary of voter backlash if they politicized the case.

Republican lawmakers Rod Blum and David Young each issued statements expressing sympathy for the Tibbetts' family but avoided any mention of illegal immigration.

Christopher Peters, a Republican mounting a long-shot challenge to Iowa Democratic Congressman Dave Loebsack, said on Facebook that politicizing Tibbetts' murder "cheapens the death of this young woman."

"Yes, our immigration system is broken, and Congress has failed to fix it," Peters wrote. "There is much we can and must do. For now, though, we should mourn the loss of Mollie."

Tibbetts' father, who made many public pleas for information about his daughter's whereabouts, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday. A man who picked up the phone at the home of Tibbetts' mother in Iowa declined to comment.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump spoke almost daily about the 2015 death of Kate Steinle, who was struck by a bullet that ricocheted off the ground after being accidentally fired by an illegal immigrant. A jury last year cleared the immigrant of murder and manslaughter charges, and Trump railed against the decision.

Iowa voters might recoil at Tibbetts' death being politicized so quickly, said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

"Kate Steinle was used nationally by Republicans as an example of a system that needs fixing," Hagle said. "That might happen again, but I'm not sure it will be handled the same way in Iowa."

Several residents of Brooklyn, Iowa, where Tibbetts lived, expressed sadness at how quickly her death had become a political talking point.

"I wish Trump had not made this political," said Janice, a 60-year-old waitress at the Classic Deli, who declined to give her last name. "The family just wants to heal. I have a farm with Mexican immigrants, and I never felt afraid."

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York, additional reporting by John Peragine in Brooklyn, Iowa and Ginger Gibson in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone and Rosalba O'Brien)

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