FACT CHECK: Did Texas Bar Border Patrol From Rescuing Three Migrants Who Drowned?

Elias Atienza | Senior Reporter

Multiple media outlets reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said Texas barred Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) from rescuing a woman and two children who drowned in the Rio Grande.

Verdict: Misleading

The woman and two children had already drowned by the time federal authorities reached out to Texas officials, though Texas National Guard refused to allow border agents access to Shelby Park, according to a Department of Justice (DOJ) filing. The Texas Military Department (TMD) denied it had barred CBP from rescuing the migrants.

Fact Check:

The DHS accused Texas of preventing CBP from responding to a situation where three migrants, a woman and two children, drowned in the Rio Grande River on Jan. 13, according to The Hill.

Multiple media outlets, such as Politico, The New York Times (NYT), Axios, The Associated Press (AP), Rolling Stone and The Guardian, published articles on the incident. Rolling Stone’s headline reads, “Texas’ Physically Barred’ Border Patrol from Attempting to Save Migrants Who Drowned.”

However, CBP had not been prevented from rescuing the woman and two children from drowning. The three individuals had already died by the time federal authorities had informed Texas authorities of the situation, according to a Jan. 15 Department of Justice filing in the Supreme Court.

The filing reads:

“On January 12, 2024, at approximately 9:00 p.m., Mexican officials advised Border Patrol of two migrants in distress on the U.S. side of the river in the area near the Shelby Park boat ramp. App., infra, 2a. Mexican officials also informed Border Patrol that three migrants — one woman and two children — had drowned at approximately 8:00 p.m. in the same area. Ibid. An Acting…Supervisory Border Patrol Agent went to the Shelby Park entrance gate and informed the guardsmen from the Texas National Guard stationed there of the drowned migrants and the migrants in distress. Ibid. Speaking through the closed gate, the guardsmen refused to let the Acting Supervisor enter because they had been ordered not to allow Border Patrol access to the park.”

The filing also confirmed that Texas did not allow CBP agents access to Shelby Park at the time and that Mexico had rescued two other migrants. Texas has physically blocked off Shelby Park and not allowed CBP to access it since Jan. 11, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

The TMD, at the time these articles were published, also denied the claims. The TMD said in a Jan. 14 statement that the claim the department prevented CBP from rescuing was “wholly inaccurate.” (RELATED: Did Nikki Haley Rank No. 1 Among Governors In Chinese Investment In 2015?)

“At the time that Border Patrol requested access, the drownings had occurred, Mexican Authorities were recovering the bodies, and Border Patrol expressed these facts to the TMD personnel on site,” the statement reads.” TMD Soldiers were in direct communication with Border Patrol on the evening of 12 January when Border Patrol requested access to Shelby Park. Soldiers confirmed that when Border Patrol requested access to the park they stated that Mexican Authorities had already recovered the bodies of two drowned migrants.”

A DHS spokesperson referred Check Your Fact to a letter the department sent to Texas and said it “speaks for itself…” The letter, sent by DHS on Jan. 14, demanded that Texas allow border agents to access Shelby Park and called the state’s blockade of the area “clearly unconstitutional,” according to CBS News.

“Texas’s failure to provide access to the border persists even in instances of imminent danger to life and safety. Texas has demonstrated that even in the most exigent circumstances, it will not allow Border Patrol access to the border to conduct law enforcement and emergency response activities,” the letter reads.

Check Your Fact reached out to outlets who reported on the matter and asked if they would update with the recent DOJ filing. (Did Pope Francis Say That Jesus Was Born During A Census Taken By King David?)

NYT spokesperson Naseem Amini told Check Your Fact that “we report the dispute about the sequence of events as they were known at the time” and directed Check Your Fact to the NYT’s report.

“But the military department said when Border Patrol agents requested access, the migrants had already drowned, adding that claims that it had prevented the agents from saving them were ‘wholly inaccurate,'” the NYT reported.

A NYT spokesperson previously told Check Your Fact in November 2023 that the outlet “regularly edit web stories to refine the story, add new information, additional context, or analysis. We only make note of changes if they involve an error.”

AP spokesperson Nicole Meir directed Check Your Fact to the AP’s follow-up reporting.

“The story you flagged is from Sunday. AP published a story [Jan. 16] that mentions the DOJ’s Monday filing,” Meir said in an email.

The AP reported:

“The Department of Homeland Security and the Texas Military Department have provided different timelines about the drownings since they were made public Saturday by a South Texas congressman. According to the Justice Department’s filing Monday, the deaths occurred at 8 p.m. Friday, an hour before U.S. federal agents were notified by Mexican counterparts. Border Patrol agents were also made aware of two other migrants in the same area who were in distress, the filing said.”

A Politico spokesperson told Check Your Fact in an email that it “published the Associated Press reporting” and subsequent “follow-up reporting” on the story.

“POLITICO published the Associated Press’ reporting on this story and has also published their follow-up reporting that includes the conflicting timelines between The Department of Homeland Security and the Texas Military Department,” the spokesperson said.

David Lawler, the director of programming for Axios, told Check Your Fact in an email that the outlet “updated its story.” The Axios article has been updated with an editor’s note noting the DOJ filing.

“Editor’s note: The story and headline have been corrected to reflect new information from the Justice Department that was in a Monday filing to the U.S. Supreme Court, noting that three migrants had already drowned when Border Patrol requested access to the area, as well as to add additional reporting including statements from the Texas Military Department and the White House,” the editor’s note reads.

Rolling Stone updated its article to acknowledge the filing, writing,”This post has been updated to reflect the Justice Department’s filing on Monday.” The headline also changed to “Texas ‘Physically Barred’ Border Patrol From Accessing Migrants Who Drowned.”

The Guardian updated its article on Jan. 23, adjusting the headline to attribute the accusations to Democratic Texas Representative Henry Cuellar. The update also acknowledges the DOJ filing. The headline now reads,”Texas officials ‘block US border agents from helping three drowning migrants.'”

“The headline of this article was amended on 23 January 2024 to make clear, consistent with the article’s text, that the reported events are attributed (to Henry Cuellar). On 15 January, after this article was published, a justice department filing to the supreme court detailed that the migrants died before border patrol agents tried gaining access, although the US attorney general wrote that it was “impossible to say what might have happened” if border patrol with their surveillance equipment were not already barred from the area. Cuellar has been quoted saying he had been sharing the latest information given to him but, regardless of the timeline, border patrol presence might have prevented the deaths,” the update reads.

Check Your Fact reached out to the TMD, Texas Department of Public Safety, and CBP for comment. Check Your Fact also reached out to several media outlets, such as Rolling Stone, for comment and will update this article if responses are provided.

Joseph Caiseri contributed to this article.

Update 1/19/2024: This article has been updated to acknowledge that Rolling Stone updated its article and adjusted its headline. 

Update: 1/23/2024: This article has been updated to note that the Guardian updated its article and adjusted its headline,. 

Elias Atienza

Senior Reporter
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