Why A Do-Nothing Immigration Strategy Might Work For GOP

The conservative magazine The National Review is offering House Republicans a strategy on immigration reform: Do nothing. National Review editor Rich Lowry tells NPR's Rachel Martin why he thinks the best political move for Republican lawmakers is to hold off on passing an immigration bill.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Immigration reform is back on the political front burner - sort of. There's support for some kind of change to the immigration system by Democrats and Republicans. But the GOP is divided on the issues. The midterm elections are coming up this fall and some in the party say it's not the right time to push reform. But President Obama is trying to leverage the moment. In an interview this past week, he suggested he'd be willing to give up a special pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants if it meant reaching a comprise deal with Republicans. The National Review's editorial board is offering House Republicans some advice on how to approach immigration legislation. Their strategy: do nothing. I'm joined by National Review editor Rich Lowry to explain. Thanks so much for being with us, Rich.

RICH LOWRY: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, you're advising House Republicans to hold off on immigration reform, at least in the short term. Why? Why is now a bad time to move forward?

LOWRY: Well, there are a couple of things. One, there is very little urgency behind this issue with the public. A Gallup poll recently found 3 percent of people considered it top priority for them. On tactical grounds, it'd be a mistake for Republicans because it's going to create a brutal intramural civil war in the run-up to the midterm elections, which is a bad idea. And then more broadly we have a problem with the Gang of Eight approach because it involves so much more low-skilled immigration into this country that hurts workers further down the income scale.

MARTIN: So, two members of that bipartisan group, Texas Representative John Carter and Sam Johnson, both Republicans dropped out of the Gang of Eight this past week. They say that President Obama doesn't have a good record when it comes to enforcing the Affordable Care Act and that he couldn't or shouldn't be trusted to enforce a compromise bill on immigration reform. Is health care just a better issue for Republicans to pursue this fall?

LOWRY: Yes, absolutely. There's very little upside to an immigration bill and quite a lot of downside. Whereas Obamacare and its failures on its launch year has just been an incalculable political gift to the Republican Party.

MARTIN: Why can't the party do both? Can't you campaign against Obamacare and for immigration reform at the same time? Because, after all, even though you say there's not a lot of public urgency, the GOP has made no secret about the need to reach out to Latinos in this country. And for them this is an important issue.

LOWRY: Well, that's true. But it's childish for Republicans to think they're going to pass an immigration bill and it's going to heal their problems with Latino voters. The history with the 1986 amnesty was, you know, Ronald Reagan signs that thing and actually the Republican share of the Latino vote goes down. So, I think more fundamentally the party should be focused on how to appeal to working-class voters of all races and all ethnicities.

MARTIN: The president has suggested, intimated that he'd be willing to let go of a special pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. If this is something House Democrats start to warm up to, would things change for the GOP? Would this be a more palatable alternative moving forward?

LOWRY: Not for me, 'cause it's really not the most important question. The amnesty of illegal immigrants will come when they're allowed to stay here and work here legally. And then also, I think, politically, even if you pass a bill that has no path to citizenship and the president signs it into law, Democrats will immediately will start, understandably, pounding away at Republicans, saying, look, you want to have this permanent class of basically second-class citizens that you're blocking from citizenship in this country and, you know, how is that going to go over with Latino voters if that's the Republican position? So, I think it's a mistake to make such a big deal of the path to citizenship now. And that even if Republicans got their way on that, it wouldn't be sustainable over the long run.

MARTIN: Rich Lowry is the editor of the National Review. He talked to us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us, Rich.

LOWRY: Thanks for having me.

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