Conservative Policies Just Don’t Work: Immigration Edition

I’ve frequently used the devastating failure of Sam Brownback’s conservative economic experiment in Kansas to show that conservative policies aren’t just morally and ethically wrong, but also simply dysfunctional and counterproductive at a basic utilitarian level. Most educated people understand this about supply-side economic policy by now.

It’s also, of course, true of social policy. We know that sexual repression, abstinence education and social stigma is the surest way to increase unintended pregnancy, STD transmission and infidelity. We know that you can’t actually “pray the gay away” even if you wanted to.

And it’s true of immigration policy, that very hot topic at present. Dave Weigel at the Washington Post reminds us of the utter failure of Trump-style immigration policy, in the very state where Trump decided to host his stadium rally:

Alabama, which hosted the largest rally of Trump’s presidential campaign Friday night, had been a test kitchen for Trump-style crackdowns on undocumented workers — and it had not gone well.

In 2011, a new Republican legislature and governor enacted HB 56, the Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act. Chief sponsor Micky Hammon warned the undocumented population that he would “make it difficult for them to live here, so they will deport themselves.” Renting a house or giving a job to an “illegal” became a crime. Police were empowered to demand proof of citizenship from anyone who looked as if he or she might lack it. School administrators were instructed to do the same to children.

The backlash was massive — a legal assault that chipped away at the law, and a political campaign that made Republicans own its consequences. Business groups blamed the tough measures for scaring away capital and for an exodus of workers that hurt the state’s agriculture industry. After Mitt Romney lost the 2012 presidential election, strategists in his own party blamed his support for the Alabama attrition policy. Those critics included Donald Trump.

It wasn’t just a political failure and black eye for the state. It was also a direct policy failure. As in other states that tried similar experiments, the agriculture sector suffered greatly as workers driven away by hostile policies were not easily replaced.

Asked about the law, Alabama voters rarely say that it worked. Large farms spent millions training new workers. The Byrds conceded that the agriculture sector suffered after some immigrants fled the state. “Most of them left and didn’t come back,” said Terry Darring-Rogers, who works at a Mobile law firm specializing in immigration.

But many Republicans have already forgotten that lesson, allowing their ideology to overwhelm their common sense in the belief that it wasn’t state conservative policy that failed, but the federal government’s interference that stymied it:

To Republicans, the lesson of HB 56 was no longer that it failed. The lesson was that it had not been permitted to work, stymied by the Obama administration. That theory took shape in the displays in some Robertsdale stores, where a sign declaring compliance with ­E-Verify was posted above an even larger ad from the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

Some people will never learn, no matter how much self-inflicted failure they endure. When Josh Duggar and countless similar self-righteous conservatives are exposed as cheating molesters, it doesn’t cause conservatives to question whether their belief system might be causing those problems. They just double down. When abstinence education causes more teen pregnancy than responsible sex education, conservatives double down on the slut shaming. When tax cuts on the rich and wage cuts to government workers lead to economic recession, Republicans don’t question their core economic beliefs; they just claim they weren’t allowed to go far enough.

In a way, modern conservatives are similar to the Communists of old. No matter how obvious the ideology’s failure, the response is always that the policies were not enacted in a strong and pure enough manner.

That inability to come to grips with failure and adjust course, and that insistence on doubling down in the face of adverse results, is part of why many consider modern conservatism to be an almost cultic movement. Its adherents long since stopped caring about the evidence or empirical results. It’s all about who can prove truest to the faith, and maximally annoy and rebel against the evil liberal heathens. Policies and results are really beside the point.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.