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Why Senator Katie Britt's border lie matters

Your newsletter writer has, as the kids say, gone viral:

(It’s me. I’m the TikToker.)

I even forced a last-minute rewrite (!) to the cold opening of last night’s SNL, starring Scarlett Johansson as the senator in question:

NBC’s Saturday Night Live via YouTube

Here’s what happened: While giving the official GOP response to the State of the Union address on Thursday, Alabama Senator and Trump vice presidential hopeful Katie Britt repeated what she framed as a harrowing story about Biden’s border policies:

We know that President Biden didn’t just create this border crisis. He invited it with 94 executive actions in his first 100 days. When I took office, I took a different approach: I traveled to the Del Rio sector of Texas. That’s where I spoke to a woman who shared her story with me. She had been sex trafficked by the cartels starting at the age of 12. She told me not just that she was raped every day, but how many times a day she was raped. The cartels put her on a mattress in a shoebox of a room, and they sent men through that door over and over again for hours and hours on end. We wouldn’t be okay with this happening in a Third World country. This is the United States of America, and it is past time, in my opinion, that we start acting like it. President Biden’s border policies are a disgrace.

I was watching live, and this anecdote immediately struck me as odd. (Odder even than Britt’s high school forensics club meets The Young and The Restless-style delivery, or the choice to appeal to women voters abandoning the GOP over its reproductive rights policies by having the youngest female senator in history give a speech from an empty kitchen.) Who was this trafficking victim? What side of the border did these crimes happen on? When did they happen? And how did an Anglophone Republican senator get an apparent migrant victim of horrific trauma to share such a deeply personal story? Also—and not for nothing—wouldn’t a victim of such horrific abuse be a good candidate for immigration protection, if not asylum?

I’d like to say that it took hours of exhaustive, painstaking research to answer all those questions. The reality is it took about twenty minutes. (I know how long because I was liveskeeting on Bluesky at the time.) It also turned out that Britt had been telling—and usually misrepresenting—this story over and over again, for more than a year, with no one calling her out on it.

What I found was that, in January 2023, Senator Britt indeed traveled to the Del Rio sector of the U.S.-Mexico border, with her fellow Republicans Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi. During that trip, they held a press conference — a “roundtable,” as they called it in a press release — with Fox News contributor Sarah Carter, a former Mexican legislator, and a woman named Karla Jacinto Romero. Jacinto’s story—which the senators conveniently linked to in the press release—fit Britt’s description almost exactly: She was sexually trafficked from the ages of 12 to 16, a period in which she says she was subjected to multiple rapes every day.

But contrary to Britt’s implication, those crimes did not take place in the U.S., nor even near the border. (The abuse seems to have happened mostly in Guadalajara and Mexico City.) Nor in her testimony does Jacinto mention a drug cartel as having been part of it; she describes her abuser as a “professional pimp.” In fact, Jacinto says that many of the men she was forced to sleep with were “foreigners visiting my city looking to have sexual interactions with minors like me.” As it happens American men make up a large percentage of sex tourists in Mexico — including in the child sex trade. So if there was a border aspect to this story it was ex-pats moving the other way.

Most damningly for Britt’s political purposes, Jacinto’s trafficking happened from 2004 until 2008, when George W. Bush, a Republican, was president.

Since her rescue in 2008, Jacinto Romero has been a well-traveled public speaker and anti-trafficking activist, who has met Pope Francis at the Vatican and given testimony to the Dutchess of Cornwall (now Queen Camilla of the U.K.). Nine years ago, she testified in front of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. (Senator Blackburn, who attended Jacinto’s press conference with Britt, was a member of the House at the time, though she was not on that committee.)

In other words, Britt took a story she heard at a press conference near the border last year—but which actually took place over six hundred miles away in central Mexico twenty years ago, when a Republican was president, and didn’t concern international human trafficking at all—and dressed it up as evidence she had personally collected that “President Biden’s border policies are a disgrace.” And when she got caught by yours truly, her office started by ignoring my request for comment, then angrily doubling down, then finally admitting that yes, she was referring to Jacinto Romero after all.

A major politician getting caught in a bald-faced lie like that is an obvious media story, or at least it used to be. But there are deeper reasons to pay attention to Britt’s rhetorical ploy, and others like it, as well.

Contrary to Johansson’s (very funny) line on SNL that Britt did “a pivot out of nowhere” to the sex trafficking story, neither the choice of story nor the violent and lurid details were random. Many on the American right in general and Trump’s MAGA movement in particular have been obsessed for

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