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Helping ICE Stir Up Anti-Immigrant Fervor in Maryland

WJLA’s Kevin Lewis selectively reports on immigrants arrested for sex crimes to paint a misleading picture of violence in Montgomery County.

Rockville MD, September 13, 2019. Pro and Anti Immigration demonstrations faced off today separated by Moco Police.
A pro-ICE demonstration in Rockville, Maryland.Susan Melkisethian/Flickr

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

On July 22, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich instructed county agencies stop working with ICE on raids and investigations. Since then, WJLA’s Kevin Lewis has selectively highlighted arrests of people with Hispanic last names and accused of sexual assault. His reporting—which appears to rely heavily on law enforcement and ICE—has created an incomplete and racist picture of sex crimes in the Maryland county. 

Lewis’s reports follow a similar pattern. He is often cited as the first to report on sex crimes in the county, tweeting out the heinous details of an alleged crime, followed by a mugshot, and article—all of which are widely reported by right-wing outlets like Breitbart, Townhall, the Daily Caller, or the Washingtion Examiner.

Lewis openly speculates about people’s immigration status, which inflames anti-immigrant sentiment with little-to-no journalistic value. On Aug. 31, he tweeted a list of people arrested for rape, most of whom had Hispanic last names. He wrote, “Some defendants … have no record on file with federal authorities. That means they could be undocumented, the feds just can’t confirm.” When those accused are not undocumented, Lewis has included their country of origin. One Sept. 16 tweet noted the accused was a “Honduran native,” despite his having legal status or U.S. citizenship. 

In his articles and on social media, Lewis frequently lists the number of alleged sex crimes committed by undocumented people since July 25—the day he sent a letter to Montgomery County, asking about its decision to limit working with ICE. This drumbeat of crime numbers has created a broader panic, popular in right-wing media, of “illegal” immigrant crime. 

On Sept. 10, Lewis appeared on the podcast of Sebastian Gorka, a former adviser to President Trump and a man with links to white nationalists. In the interview, Lewis effectively admits he’s passing along messaging from law enforcement, telling Gorka “because of [the policy ordered by Elrich], I started to receive a number of tips from people on the inside, that felt the public needed to know, in their words, what was really going on in their communities. So, I started getting tips, look into John Smith, case number 1234, there’s more of a story here.” Lewis seems to focus almost exclusively on sexual assault by immigrants and Latinx people because that’s most likely where “people on the inside,” such as ICE and local police, are telling him to look. It appears he is painting the limited, racist picture he is being prompted to paint. 

Between Aug. 13 and Sept. 19—the day The Appeal contacted Lewis for comment—Lewis did not report on any rapes or sexual assaults by either a non-immigrant or a person with a non-Hispanic name. When asked why he seemed to center his reporting over the last month on Latinx people and immigrants, Lewis said his review in this time period “found two white men charged” with sexual assault. Roughly 24 hours after The Appeal reached out to him, Lewis published a story on Sept. 20 about one of the men. 

However, publicly available arrest data show Lewis’s review is incorrect. From Aug. 23 to Sept 22, the latest available data, at least four non-immigrant white men were arrested for sexual assault.

What’s more, Lewis’s initial reports, his tweets, and any subsequent write-ups miss the larger fact that data shows immigrants, documented or not, have no effect on overall crime rates. And a June study by researchers at the University of California, Davis found there was no connection between cooperation with ICE and local law enforcement and a reduction in crime rates. The study examined jurisdictions that adopted the Secure Communities initiative, a policy that lasted from 2008 to 2014 and is similar to the one being debated in Montgomery County.

Pro-police stories are not unprecedented for Sinclair Broadcast Group stations like WJLA. Sinclair, which reaches 40 percent of American homes, has a close relationship with the Trump administration and has been shown on many occasions to demand that its anchors and reporters echo conservative talking points on air. 

The stakes for this particular messaging operation can’t be overstated. County sheriffs working with ICE under the virulently anti-immigrant Trump administration have caused alarm in immigrant communities. Threats of mass deportations, early morning raids, and a number of aggressive tactics have resulted in horror stories for both undocumented and documented people alike. 

As Jessica Pishko has written for The Appeal, police departments that work with ICE help compound the reach and scope of federal anti-immigrant policies. The agency’s 287(g) program, for example, enables “sheriffs and other officials to check the immigration status of jail detainees and assist with initiating deportation proceedings,” she wrote. 

Creating media hysteria about violent immigrants has political implications. In early September, Elrich agreed to loosen some restrictions on working with ICE and said he would look at granting the agency greater access to the county jail. Lewis, with his clear racial bias and alarmist framing, is acting as a political operation and, in doing so, has eroded any pretense of objective journalism.