Katie Britt and the unreality of Alabama immigration rhetoric • Nevada Current

Imagine if Alabama politicians started treating geothermal energy as a crisis.

And not just criticizing particular practices or businesses. We’re talking about a heat pump apocalypse.

Introducing legislation to criminalize steam. Storming library board meetings and demanding the removal of any book with the phrase “hot springs.” Using Hot Springs, Arkansas as a snickering shorthand for everything wrong with the country. Putting on flak jackets and filming television ads outside Iceland’s geysers, vowing that Alabama will not become Reykjavík.

Watching these convulsions over evaporated water, you might ask yourself: Is this an Alabama thing?  And: Is this an Alabama problem?

It’s not, and it’s not. Alabama’s geothermal industry is, in effect, non-existent. But whatever problems may come with it, having a more diverse energy sector would, on balance, benefit us.

And yet, this is how state Republicans talk about immigration.

It’s certainly how U.S. Sen. Katie Britt has talked about it. She filmed an ad for her 2022 campaign on the U.S.-Mexico border. She boasted about all the immigration measures she introduced in her first three months in office.

On Thursday night, during her widely-gaped-at response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech, she told a disturbing story about Karla Jacinto Romero, a woman who, as a 12-year-old girl, had been trafficked and sexually assaulted for four years. Britt left the impression that this was a result of Biden’s immigration policies.

“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.”

Journalist Jonathan Katz investigated the claims. Romero experienced horrors at the hands of human traffickers. But they took place from 2004 to 2008, during George W. Bush’s term in office. And not in the United States or on the U.S.-Mexico border, but in Mexico.

A Britt spokesman later confirmed to the Washington Post that she was referring to Romero.

Going on Fox News on Sunday morning to restore, restart or quit, Britt repeated her talking points, claiming she was trying to illustrate what was happening while making a semantic argument about what she meant. (The senator also said Biden’s policies were acting as a “magnet” for immigrants, which doesn’t sound like someone who wants to help people fleeing violence of the kind she described.)

But this attitude isn’t unique to Britt. It reflects the stern unreality of how Alabama Republicans talk about immigration.

Gov. Kay Ivey deploys the National Guard to the border and expresses terror of learning Spanish if “Joe Biden keeps shipping illegal immigrants into our states.” Parts of a vicious 2011 state law attacking immigrants are still on the books. Conservative media pumps up any terrible thing involving an immigrant. Britt and other members of the delegation demand action on the border, over anything else.

Listening to all this, you’d think Alabama is a border state struggling to handle high rates of immigration.

It’s not.

One, Mexico is about 1,000 miles from Montgomery. Canada is about 1,300 miles away. Unless there was an annexation I’m not aware of, Alabama is not on either boundary.

Two, crime rates among undocumented immigrants are far lower than those of native-born Americans.

Three, immigrants by and large skip Alabama. There are growing immigrant communities in the state, particularly in north Alabama. But it’s nowhere near what we see in other parts of the country. Fewer than 4% of the state’s population is foreign-born, compared to 14% nationwide. Fewer than 6% of Alabamians speak a language other than English in their home. It’s 22% in the country as a whole.

Now, we need more immigration to Alabama. The state’s population is aging; the Black Belt is in the throes of a decades-long population collapse and the state’s workforce participation rate is pretty bad. It would be great to grow like Florida (22% foreign born) or Georgia (11% foreign born) and having more immigrants would do that.

But by and large, it’s not happening.

The standard Republican response to these facts is “the border is everywhere.” That’s true in the sense that it’s in the head of every GOP official from Wyoming to South Carolina. They nod vigorously at whatever Donald Trump says about immigrants at any millisecond in time.

Yet given the chance to address the border issues they work themselves into tears over, Britt and her colleagues refused because Trump told them to walk away.

They’re serious about obeying the former president. Not immigration.

But they keep talking about it.

Maybe because it’s easier to rail against something happening 1,000 miles away than to face actual problems in Alabama.

Like gun violence, aided and abetted by public policies enacted by the Alabama Legislature. Like appalling rates of infant mortality. And maternal mortality. Or our high poverty rate, which gets still higher when you look at children.

You hope it’s not because our leaders think undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” like Trump does. Alabama carries the wounds from 200 years of that kind of rhetoric.

But whatever the reason, Alabama’s Republican leaders aren’t responding to something that’s affecting the state.  They’re attacking Fox News headlines. Doing Trump’s bidding. Distorting reality to create fear.

Katie Britt may be misleading people on immigration. But she’s one of many Alabama Republicans blind to the realities of the issue.

This column was originally published in Alabama Reflector.

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