Election Updates: Biden and Trump trade attacks in dueling events in Georgia.

Election Updates: Biden and Trump trade attacks in dueling events in Georgia.

The opposition party’s response to the State of the Union address is a golden opportunity for up-and-coming and lesser-known politicians to introduce themselves to the nation and boost their political profile.

Such was the case for Katie Britt, a first-term Republican senator from Alabama who, despite being a newcomer to the national stage, has been mentioned as a possible choice to be Donald J. Trump’s running mate. But her big debut on Thursday night has been marred by intense scrutiny of an anecdote at the center of her speech, which was delivered from her kitchen in Montgomery, Ala.

The story, about a Mexican who was a victim of sex trafficking at the age of 12, came in the context of an attack on President Biden’s border policies. In impassioned tones, Ms. Britt described a girl being raped multiple times a day in dire conditions at the hands of cartels before she was able to escape.

“This is the United States of America, and it is past time, in my opinion, that we start acting like it,” Ms. Britt said. “President Biden’s border policies are a disgrace.”

As a rhetorical device, it would be hard conjure up a more powerful and resonant example. But the story was highly misleading and improperly contextualized.

The woman referenced by Ms. Britt was, in fact, never trafficked across the border, nor has she sought asylum in this country. And her harrowing experience took place between 2004 and 2008, while a Republican, George W. Bush, was in the White House and President Biden was still a senator.

In other words, it had nothing at all to do with the current administration’s border policy. But that didn’t stop Ms. Britt from inflaming public fears about immigration and placing blame at Mr. Biden’s feet.

“We know that President Biden didn’t just create this border crisis,” she said. “He invited it.”

Although Ms. Britt did not name the victim in her speech, she has previously shared the story of a woman who appears to be the same individual based on congressional testimony, news releases and news reports.

That woman, Karla Jacinto Romero, is a Mexican citizen who does not live in the United States and who has spoken frequently about her experiences of being forced into sexual slavery for four years. In 2023, Ms. Jacinto participated in an event in Texas near the border with Mexico that was also attended by three senators, including Ms. Britt. In a video released shortly after that trip, Ms. Britt discussed Ms. Jacinto’s experiences.

Ms. Jacinto, who spoke with the Times Saturday from Mexico, said she had not been informed ahead of time that Ms. Britt would be discussing her in the speech and only learned about it after a video pointing out the deceptive framing of the senator’s speech was posted by the independent journalist Jonathan Katz on TikTok on Friday.

“I only found out via social media,” said Ms. Jacinto, who continues to speak frequently about human trafficking and who is supported by a U.S.-based nonprofit, Reintegra, that provides educational grants to victims of sex trafficking in Latin America. “I thought it was very strange.”

She said she preferred to keep politics out of the question of human trafficking. “I am involved in the fight to stop trafficking and I don’t think it should be political,” she said. “The work I do is not a game.”

A spokesman for Ms. Britt, Sean Ross, stood behind her speech.

“The story Senator Britt told was 100 percent correct,” he said in a statement. “And there are more innocent victims of that kind of disgusting, brutal trafficking by the cartels than ever before right now. The Biden administration’s policies — the policies in this country that the president falsely claims are humane — have empowered the cartels and acted as a magnet to a historic level of migrants making the dangerous journey to our border.”

Mr. Ross did not respond to a follow-up question about what direct responsibility the Biden administration had for what Ms. Jacinto experienced or what an anecdote about sex trafficking entirely within another country had to do with U.S. border policies.

Andrew Bates, a White House spokesman, said in a statement that Ms. Britt’s remarks were “debunked lies.”

This is not the first time that Ms. Jacinto’s experience has been used as a political bludgeon.

The January 2023 event, held in Eagle Pass, Texas, was organized by Marsha Blackburn, the Republican senator from Tennessee, who framed it as a mission to “examine the disastrous effects of Biden’s border crisis firsthand.”

At the event, Ms. Jacinto was accompanied by a former Mexican congresswoman, Rosi Orozco, who is active in human trafficking matters and lives in the U.S. The two women sat on a round table panel focused on human and sex trafficking and were featured in a short video with the three senators.

Soon thereafter, Ms. Blackburn published an op-ed headlined “Biden’s open border is not compassionate or humane.” After describing Ms. Jacinto’s travails, she wrote: “It is clear that we are experiencing a humanitarian and national security crisis, courtesy of President Biden.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ms. Blackburn said that “for years, Senator Blackburn has fought to prevent sex trafficking and has met with victims, such as Karla, to hear about the horrific abuses that occur.” The statement added that “countless women and children are sexually trafficked into the U.S.A. due to Biden’s open border agenda. Under President Biden, human trafficking has skyrocketed from a $500 million business in 2018 to around $13 billion a year in 2022.”

Andy McCullough, the executive director of Reintegra, which first helped Ms. Jacinto in 2017, providing funding so she could finish high school, said he was stunned to learn how Ms. Jacinto was portrayed at the Texas event and, again this week, in Ms. Britt’s speech.

“They presented Karla as someone who was trafficked across the border, and that’s not her story,” he said. “This issue is so horrific, and yet the narrative is being manipulated to make it a political thing. This is re-exploiting the very victims of exploitation that we are trying to help.”

Ms. Jacinto, 31, has been speaking against human trafficking for years. In 2015, she met Pope Francis at the Vatican and also spoke at a House foreign affairs subcommittee on global sex trafficking organized by Republican Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey. The hearing focused on strategies for combating the problem in other countries, rather than describing them as a product of U.S. border policies.

Concerned about how her story was being portrayed by politicians, Mr. McCullough brought Ms. Jacinto on as staffer at Reintegra last March, hoping that the organization could protect her and her message, paying her a small stipend and arranging for speaking opportunities.

“This issue is horrendous,” Mr. McCullough said. “If we make it a political thing or a religious thing, we take away the reality of how awful it is. All of humanity should be fighting this issue.”

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