Doubts have been cast on the accuracy of a story about horrific child sex abuse told by the Republican senator Katie Britt in her widely ridiculed speech delivered in rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address.

The journalist and author Jonathan Katz has accused Britt of being “fundamentally dishonest” for invoking the case of a woman who had been sex-trafficked at age 12 and raped multiple times to illustrate the supposed failure of the Biden administration’s border control policies.

The controversy further intensifies the spotlight on Britt – a rising Republican star – after she came under fire from members of her own party for delivering a rejoinder to Biden on Thursday from the setting of a kitchen.

In that speech, Britt described travelling to the Del Rio sector of the US-Mexico border and cited the case of an unidentified woman, whom Britt said confided harrowing experiences. The senator implied these were a direct result of the ongoing crisis at the border, which Republicans have sought to exploit as a campaign issue.

“I spoke to a woman who shared her story with me,” Britt said. “She had been sex-trafficked by the cartels starting at age 12. She told me not just that she was raped every day, but how many times a day she was raped.”

The senator did not say where or when the events occurred, but in outraged tones she implied that they had happened in the US on Biden’s watch: “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. It’s despicable and it’s almost entirely preventable.”

However, in a seven-minute video posted on TikTok, Katz – a former AP reporter who has written on drug wars in Mexico – cited details that appeared to show the story Britt was describing had happened not just outside the US, but many years before Biden became president.

He concluded that Britt had deliberately misrepresented the tale of Karla Jacinto Romero, an activist who has publicly recounted her experiences on numerous occasions at the hands of sex traffickers in her native Mexico.

Now 31, Romero testified to a US Congressional subcommittee in May 2015 describing her experiences at the hands of a trafficker who held her captive between the ages of 12 and 16, before she was eventually rescued. She has also spoken before the Mexican house of representatives and the Vatican.

Britt met Jacinto Romero on a visit to the border with two other Republican senators, Marsha Blackburn and Cindy-Hyde Smith, in January 2023.

The visit was described on Blackburn’s senatorial webpage, which included photos of the three senators sharing a platform with Romero at a news conference.

In his video, Katz dissected what he said was Britt’s attempt to conflate Romero’s story with the US-Mexico border imbroglio, where the build-up of asylum seekers promises to become a central issue in the 2024 presidential election, before lambasting her for “dishonesty”.

Katz said that Britt, by not giving a location or a timeframe for the story, had deliberately tried to create a “beyond misleading” impression that the events had taken place recently and on US soil.

“All I had to do was key in Karla Jacinto Romero’s name … and it took me to [her] testimony to Congress from 2015 about her experiences in Mexico,” he said.

“It took place between 2004 and 2008. I don’t know what they put in the textbooks of Alabama these days, but Joe Biden was not the president of the United States in 2004 or 2008. In 2004 and 2008, the president of the United States was George W Bush, a Republican. [But] none of this really matters because none of these events took place in the United States – or even near the border.”

Katz added: “It seems very clear to me that she is trying to create an association in people’s minds between Joe Biden, the border, Mexicans, you know, Latins – people of Latin descent – and sexual violence. That’s what she’s going for and she is doing it on the basis of something that you can only say is an out-and-out lie.

“It must have been obvious to her, at the very least, that she was not talking to somebody who had recently been 12 years old.”

Katz said he had sought a comment from Britt’s spokesperson but had received no reply. “For now, it just looks as if she got up on national television and lied about something really horrific and important – and for her own personal and her party’s political gain,” he said.

In a statement to media outlets, Britt’s spokesperson Sean Ross sidestepped commenting on whether the senator had been alluding to Romero in Thursday’s speech but insisted her account was “100% correct”.

“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,” he said. “Along that journey, children, women and men are being subjected to gut-wrenching, heartbreaking horrors in our own backyard.”

Following Britt’s speech, the gun control advocate Shannon Watts noted that the senator had used stories of sexual abuse in an effort to elect Donald Trump, who has been accused of rape in an allegation a judge called “substantially true”, and of assault or misconduct by more than 20 other women. “Senator Katie Britt says sexual assault is the worst thing that can happen to a woman while encouraging Americans to vote for a convicted sexual predator,” Watts said.

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