Fact Check

Was the 'Illegal Alien Mom with Kids' Photograph Staged?

"The illegal alien mother ‘fleeing’ from the border wall was all a lie. It was a setup."

Published Nov. 26, 2018

Image courtesy of Shutterstock
A photograph of a migrant mother and her children fleeing a tear gas attack near a border crossing was staged.

Chaos erupted in Tijuana, Mexico, on 25 November 2018 when U.S. Border Patrol agents unleashed tear gas on migrants near a major border crossing point. And as per usual, that chaos prompted opportunistic purveyors of misinformation to swing into action.

That misinformation was based on a marked-up picture taken by a Reuters photographer that shows Maria Meza, a 39-year-old migrant from Honduras, clinging to her small children and running away from a tear gas canister fired by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The wrenching photograph prompted public outrage, but some commenters, including the notoriously unreliable Gateway Pundit website, seized the opportunity to falsely claim the picture was a hoax, drawing that conclusion from the fact that other photographers could be seen in the frame:

This assertion of a "hoax" appears to be nothing more than a case of apophenia — the perception of connections between unrelated events that creates an imagined pattern. The fact that other photographers were taking pictures of people who were not affected by the canister Meza and her children were fleeing from has no bearing on the veracity of the photograph depicting their plight.

Meza and thousands of other migrants had traveled through Central America and Mexico with a caravan that originated in Honduras in mid-October 2018. Since arriving in Tijuana, the migrants had been housed inside a makeshift refugee encampment at Benito Juarez Stadium near the U.S.-Mexico border. Most were in a state of limbo as they awaited their chance to plead their asylum cases before U.S. immigration authorities.

The frustration and despair at Benito Juarez Stadium led hundreds of people to demonstrate on the Sunday morning following Thanksgiving in November 2018. Although the protest started peacefully, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) stated that some protesters broke away from the main group and attempted to breach the border fence, while several others hurled solid objects. In response to this disruption, Border Patrol deployed tear gas against the perpetrators.

The original photograph of Meza and her toddlers fleeing a tear gas canister hissing behind them was taken by Reuters photojournalist Kim Kyung-Hoon:

A second image captured by the same photographer showed one of Meza's diaper-clad, barefoot children clasping her hand and and crying after the experience:

Although Reuters is a non-partisan and highly reliable news agency, viral conspiracy site Gateway Pundit unfortunately but unsurprisingly chose not to promote documented reality. Instead, they went with a marked-up image posted by an anonymous Twitter user and ran a false headline proclaiming "Hoaxed: The ‘Illegal Alien Mom with Barefoot Kids’ Photo was a Setup – Another Staged #FakeNews Production."

"The woman with the children was just a photo-op," declared Gateway Pundit. To come to this conclusion, Gateway Pundit pointed out that other photographers could be seen in the background of the shot taking pictures of their own: "In the background of the picture a group of men are posing for one camera man and another is running towards another camera man. In other areas, people are just standing around."

We asked Gateway Pundit founder Jim Hoft whether he had any evidence the photograph was staged other than the presence of other photographers in the background and how he knew Meza's immigration status in Mexico (since his piece referred to her as an "illegal alien"). We received no response to our questions.

However, Customs and Border Protection confirmed that Border Patrol agents shot tear gas at caravan migrants near the El Chaparral port of entry because protesters were throwing objects and attempting unauthorized entry into the U.S.:

In a follow-up statement, CBP again confirmed that agents had addressed attempts to breach the border fence and protesters' throwing objects "with presence and less-lethal device deployments" at the San Ysidro and El Chaparral ports of entry, with a spokesperson stating:

This group ignored law enforcement agencies in Mexico and assaulted U.S. Federal Officers and Agents assigned to respond to the situation in San Diego. As a response to the assaults and to defuse this dangerous situation, trained CBP personnel employed less-lethal devices to stop the actions of assaultive individuals attempting to break into the U.S.

Border authorities shut down traffic in both directions at the busy port for several hours as a result of the incident.

BuzzFeed News tracked down Meza, who said in an interview that she didn't try to cross the border but was merely standing near the fence observing what was happening with other caravan migrants when tear gas canisters were launched in her direction. "I thought my kids were going to die with me because of the gas we inhaled," she told BuzzFeed.

Gateway Pundit has been sued for defamation for wrongly identifying an innocent person as the driver of a car that ran down counter-demonstrators at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. More recently, Gateway Pundit was forced to retract a story falsely accusing U.S. Department of Justice Special Counsel Robert Mueller of sexual assault after those accusations were shown to be fraudulent.


Diaz, Lizbeth.   "U.S. Fires Year Gas Into Mexico to Repel Migrants, Closes Border Gate for Several Hours."     Reuters.   25 November 2018.

Elfrink, Tim, and Fred Barbash.   "'These Children Are Barefoot. In Diapers. Choking on Tear Gas.'"     The Washington Post.   26 November 2018.

Lombardo, Clare.   "U.S. Agents Spray Tear Gas at Migrants, Briefly Close Tijuana Border Entry."     NPR.   25 November 2018.

Flores, Adolfo.   "The Mother in This Iconic Photo of Sunday’s Border Teargassing Was Thinking Only of Getting Her Children to Safety."     BuzzFeed News.   26 November 2018.

Morrisey, Kate.   "With Goal in Sight, Caravan Members Must Make Tough Choices About Asylum."     San Diego Union-Tribune.   26 November 2018.

Pedneault, Jonathan.   "A Peaceful Demonstration Turns Ugly at U.S. Border."     Human Rights Watch.   26 November 2018.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who has been working in the news industry since 2006.