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But Tibbetts' father said his daughter wouldn't want to be the face of an immigration debate and he begged for the family to be allowed to grieve privately.

This usage of 'face' is unusual to me. Does it mean 'she wouldn't want to face this kind of immigration debate' or 'she wouldn't want to be the arguing point of an immigration debate'?

How should we understand 'face' in this context?

The full source.

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    Although I did not read the whole context, I think the word face was used in literal and figurative sense. In literal sense, his daughter does not want to be associated her face, her name -- overall appearance or image- with the debate. In figurative sense I can say, his daughter does not want to be centered on the debate, in other words she does not want that the debate revolve around her. She does not want to be focal point of the debate. Another example could be celebrities such as Britney Spears was once the face of Pepsi through the commercials. – Mrt Sep 20 '18 at 0:33
  • @Mrt, I think "She does not want to be focal point of the debate" is the point. Is it a common usage? Thanks! – dan Sep 20 '18 at 0:43
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    Yes " focal point" is a noun used commonly. However, mostly "things" become the focal point of something not humans. Such as concepts, arguments, incidents, remarks etc. – Mrt Sep 20 '18 at 0:57
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This usage of face is figurative. It comes from the idea of face being the facade/outward appearance of something. As MacMillan defines:

the qualities that something such as an organization has, or wants people to think it has
This is the new face of banking in America.

Cambridge also has a page here:

what you can see of something or what shows:
Poor quality is the unacceptable face of increased productivity.

Basically, according to her father, the late girl Tibbetts would not want to be the thing that people remember the debate by. This sentence is in the subjunctive mood, saying that if the girl were alive, she would hate it if people saw her as typifying or symbolizing the debate about the U.S. immigration system.

Yes, it is a very common usage. Here's some examples I made up:

We all see Gandhi as the face of nonviolent resistance.

Brother Malcolm was the face of the Black Power movement.

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