Opinion | Sex Trafficking, De Facto Lies and Immigration

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On Thursday, Katie Britt, the junior senator from Alabama, delivered the Republican response to the State of the Union address. Her overwrought performance has been widely mocked; that’s OK for late-night TV, but I’m not going to join in that chorus.

What I want to do instead is focus on the centerpiece of Britt’s remarks, a deeply misleading story about sex trafficking that she used to attack President Biden. Her use of the story — which turns out to have involved events in Mexico way back when George W. Bush was president — wasn’t technically a lie, since she didn’t explicitly say that it happened in the United States on Biden’s watch. She did, however, say: “We wouldn’t be OK with this happening in a third-world country. 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.”

That’s a clear attempt to mislead — the moral equivalent of a lie — and the careful wording actually suggests that she knew she was being misleading, and wanted an escape hatch if someone called her bluff.

To really understand the significance of her de facto lie, however, we need to put it in political context.

Over the past few months, there’s been a palpable shift in Republican rhetoric away from attacks on the Biden economy and toward dire warnings about “migrant crime.”

This shift has in part been forced by the fact that the Biden economy is actually doing very well these days, with inflation receding while unemployment remains near a 50-year low. In political terms, the narrative of a bad economy seems to be fading.

If I were a Republican strategist, I’d be especially worried about the changing tone of news coverage. The San Francisco Fed maintains a daily index of “news sentiment.” In the summer of 2023, although the economy was arguably already performing pretty well, this index was roughly as low as it was in the depths of the Great Recession. Since then, however, it has shot up to levels roughly comparable to those that prevailed on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Republicans, then, need a new issue. And there really does seem to have been a surge in illegal attempts to cross our southern border. So there are strategic reasons for Donald Trump and his party to hype the dangers of migrant crime — and for Trump and his allies to maximize the fear factor by blocking bipartisan legislation that would have helped secure the border.

My guess, however, is that Trump’s rants about migrant crime aren’t purely strategic. He has a history of being obsessed with alleged crimes by dark-skinned people, going all the way back to his demand, after the arrests of the Central Park Five, who were eventually exonerated, to reinstate the death penalty. And his claims about the dangers posed by migrants are so extreme that they may well be self-defeating.

The other day, for example, he declared, “I will stop the killing, I will stop the bloodshed, I will end the agony of our people, the plunder of our cities, the sacking of our towns, the violation of our citizens and the conquest of our country.” Which towns and cities, exactly, have been sacked and plundered? Did Attila the Hun swing by for a visit while I wasn’t looking?

Yes, figuring out how best to secure our borders is a real issue, but the data just doesn’t show that there’s a crisis of migrant crime. Indeed, homicides in America surged in 2020 — a year in which Trump was still president and apprehensions at the southern border were way down. By contrast, in the past couple of years, the homicide rate has come down even as border activity has increased.

So what do you do when the numbers don’t support your dystopian fantasies? You zero in on the most horrific individual stories.

Without question, the killing of Laken Riley, for which an undocumented immigrant has been charged, is devastating. But in a country as big as ours, it’s almost always possible to find examples of unspeakable tragedies involving individual members of whatever group you name. There are probably more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Based on the available evidence, however, immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes.

In any case, the migrant crime wave — the “plunder of our cities” Trump seems to endlessly decry — is a myth. But it may be a myth Trump believes in, and the possibility that in this instance he may actually be sincere is alarming.

Why? Because if Trump really believes migrants are an existential threat, if he wins in November, as president he might go through with his plan to engage in sweeping raids and mass deportations, very likely catching up many people who simply look as if they might be undocumented immigrants.

So don’t wave away Britt’s remarks as a mere example of bad acting. They may be the harbinger of a reign of terror that will wreak havoc in America.

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