Do as I Say, Not as I Want: Dissonance in Conservative Immigration Policy and Practice

Imagine you are at a table eating dinner. You are gobbling up your food, loving it: grease on your fingers, sauce on your cheek. But in between bites you disparage where the food came from, and how it was prepared. The talking heads around you nod in agreement, all the while piling in the pleasures of the flavor.

This, in a nutshell, is cognitive dissonance: a process whereby conflicting cognitions operate in the same person or set of people. Politics and policy are rife with such contradiction. Modern conservatism has in fact made a game of it, to the point that even Republican pollster Frank Lutz seems concerned as to what the mixed messaging has done to right-leaning constituents.

This is a problem, if only because progress as a society is impossible when actions and words continuously cross each other out.

Take the state of immigration policy. In the recent book The Great Inversion: The Future of American Cities by Alan Ehrenhalt, a chapter is dedicated to the heavily conservative Gwinnett County in the Atlanta Metro, particularly relating to its exploding immigrant population over the last 20 years. In short, what began with a call-out for cheap labor in the '90s to build Atlanta's Olympic amenities turned into the availability of a cheap labor force that'd fuel Atlanta's construction boom a decade later. Writing for Governing, Ehrenhalt reports that most of this labor was actively recruited by local leaders who -- in the case of the Olympic build-out -- "felt the only way to get the projects done in time at reasonable cost was to bring in an army of Latino laborers from virtually any place they could be found."

But as the economy soured, so arose xenophobic angst, and after long the cheap immigrant workforce that enabled the affordable subdivision -- not to mention Centennial Park, which helped catapult downtown Atlanta's resurgence -- became the scapegoat. Local conservative politicians took note, with Georgia fighting for its own Arizona-style, "sniff and see" law regarding probable cause to look into whether an immigrant is "legal" or not.

But these same politicians were beholden to another constituency: the business community. Here's the vice president of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce -- a longtime ally with Gwinnett's County Commission -- being quoted in Ehrenhalt's book: "If you don't enjoy and embrace diversity ... then get out of the Southeast. Go to Nebraska."

Others in the business community are worried as well, particularly farm owners. In a June LA Times piece called "Fewer hands in the fields," Richard Fausset tags along with a state-licensed labor contractor as he looks for migrant workers in the Georgian countryside to pick berries for the likes of Sam's Club and Costco. From the piece:

The pickers, under federal law, must present identifying documents to work. Farmers acknowledge that some IDs must be phony, but as [one] office manager said, "I don't know what a fake one looks like."

Nor would they want to, because -- as Forbes has recently reported -- the alternative is to ship in prisoners from behind bars to do the picking. Efficiency this isn't.

So what's going on here?

Well, nothing really coherent, as we have not so much an actual immigration policy as an anti-policy that encourages immigrant sweeps in the cover of night and immigrant attraction in the light of day. In other words, we have a state of cultural dissonance, at a variety of levels. For instance, in the Atlanta Metro narrative, we have dissonance in the ex-urban homeowner who decries the presence of immigrants inside a house that the immigrants built. We have dissonance in the politician that says immigrants are bad for our country's integrity but good for our businesses bottom line. We have dissonance in the corporation that passes the savings of migrant worker labor onto the public yet actively supports legislation that criminalizes their own pipeline of production.

Of course such competing thoughts and actions would cause many to say, "Wait, something's not right." But that's why we have psychological defense mechanisms, such as rationalization, aka "making excuses." Technically, rationalization involves a process "in which irrational or unacceptable behavior, motives, or feelings are logically justified or made consciously tolerable by plausible means."

A perfect example of rationalizing inconsistent immigration beliefs was exhibited last fall by New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez, a Republican who has taken a hard line against illegal immigration. Eventually, word got out that her own grandparents came to the country illegally. She rationalized the discordance of her experience and beliefs this way:

"I know they arrived without documents, especially my grandfather, my father's father..."

"In those days, the law was very different," she added, saying many people came to the United States without papers back then.

This, then, is the true state of immigration policy -- or an inability to examine the situation honestly. Because instead of dealing with the conflict that comes with both demanding and demonizing immigrants, we bury our heads away from the reality that conflict exists. We are a country, then, so out of touch that we don't know that the flavor we love comes from the process we profess to hate.