Katie Britt’s speech a terrible disservice to sex trafficking victims

by Marj Halperin

Scarlett Johansson’s “Saturday Night Live” open was hilarious, and there have been so many more great jokes about the oddly amateur theatrics of U.S. Sen. Katie Britt in her response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. But we can’t let the humor mask a patently cruel lie that was one of the cornerstones of her speech.

Her story of the sex trafficking of a Mexican woman was graphic and deeply disturbing. Hundreds of women are trafficked each year in Mexico, and the U.S. State Department office that tracks these things finds the Mexican government falls far short in efforts to identify victims, fund victim assistance, prosecute cases and achieve convictions, particularly when government officials are involved.

So what, exactly, makes this issue relevant in the Republican response to the State of the Union address?

Britt told us that the example she shared was Biden’s fault. “We wouldn’t be OK with this happening in a Third World country,” Britt said. “This is the United States of America, and it’s past time we start acting like it. President Biden’s border crisis is a disgrace.”

Yes, this is the United States of America, but the incident she referenced did not occur here. And it didn’t happen while Biden was president. Not even when he was vice president. As uncovered by independent journalist Jonathan M. Katz, this is the horrendous story of Karla Jacinto Romero who shared details of her experience with a U.S. House subcommittee at a 2015 hearing. While I wish the truth was less painful, the abuse essentially did happen as Britt explained, making it seem like an immediate, potential threat to every woman in the U.S.

Britt is well aware that it didn’t happen here and didn’t happen recently. Her spokesman confirmed to The Associated Press that the exploitation and abuse took place in Mexico from 2004 to 2008 — when Republican George W. Bush was president.

Some will say this kind of fact-twisting always happens in politics. But I say it sinks to a new low.

Let’s skip over the basic factual errors, including the way Britt shared this as if Jacinto Romero whispered her story to the senator in a personal, private conversation. The real outrage, for me, is that Britt warped another woman’s tragedy for her own political gain, making it the foundation of a lie about Biden’s border policies so she could blame him for something that happened in another time and another place. It is unconscionable for a woman in this position of power to abuse her status this way. She has further abused Jacinto Romero by layering in lies to frighten other women into voting for Britt’s favored presidential candidate.

International sex trafficking is all too real and all too common worldwide. What the United Nations calls a “modern form of slavery” is tracked in 155 countries. Almost 20% of victims are children, as was Jacinto Romero in the early 2000s.

Britt has told this story, in this way, countless times over the last decade. If I’m telling it, I would end with a plea to welcome trafficking victims like Jacinto Romero into our country when they seek asylum here. These women, children and men are exactly whom the asylum process is for. Their plight deserves compassion, not exploitation.

Such a serious problem calls for serious discussions and real solutions from leaders around the world, including those in our own Congress. With her cynical speech, Britt falls far short of the promise she made when taking her oath of office.

And to twist this tragic sexual abuse story in support of electing a convicted sexual predator to the highest office in our country makes her conduct all the more immoral.

Marj Halperin helps nonprofits and government agencies better communicate their messages and missions. She is an award-winning journalist and former Democratic analyst for WGN-TV and, as a community activist, leads the Chicago neighborhood group One Community Near South.