When Issues Don't Fit Into Labels

With less than a week until the presidential election, the Obama and Romney campaigns are quickly attempting to finish painting pictures of their positions on the year’s major issues.

Or single major issue, as it were, which is the economy.

The U.S. economy is an important, weighty issue, no doubt. Like many other Americans, I want to know what solution each candidate proposes to keep the economy stable. But I also want to know why both candidates have attempted to isolate “the economy” from all other issues, proposing domestic, economic solutions that fail to acknowledge international factors.

Both Obama and Romney have proposed plans to ramp up the economy, but their outlines both seem to present the economy solely as a domestic issue. In reality, the U.S. economy is too large and irrevocably global in nature to be considered a matter wholly of either “domestic” or “foreign” policy.

And that begs the question: Is our method of policy categorization too simple?

Other big-ticket items, such as abortion and unrest in the Middle East, fall neatly into these designated categories. We subconsciously ask ourselves, “Whom does this issue affect?” and shelve each issue appropriately; there may be nothing wrong with this method.

But what about issues that do not fit either of our broadly conceived labels?

Consider immigration, an issue that—in spite of the campaign focus on the economy—might be the most pressing, economy-related topic you’ve heard nothing about this election season. Ironically, a recent article out suggested that swing states, which both candidates are campaigning hard for, are watching immigration policy closely and could be a major factor in how they vote.

When I was in Washington D.C. this spring studying politics with the American Studies Program on Capitol Hill, I discussed immigration with many staff and legal aides for legislators, all of whom assured me that comprehensive reform was a top priority for their party. Most were honest and said reform wouldn’t happen in this session of Congress, but they promised that I’d be hearing about it when election season hit.

And earlier this summer, for a few brief campaign seconds, it seemed as if immigration might actually take center stage. Liberals cheered when Obama issued an executive mandate that bypassed a Congressional stall-out on and effectively enacted the DREAM Act by focusing prosecutorial discretion on deportation of criminals rather than young minors. On the Republican side, Romney appeared to be leaning toward Florida Senator Marco Rubio as his vice-presidential candidate, a move that might have been an attempt to curry favor with Latino voters (who, according to Pew research, lean overwhelmingly toward Obama).

But such glimpses of immigration were fleeting, and as Ruth Melkonian-Hoover and Jessica Allen point out in Capital Commentary several weeks ago, both Obama and Romney have incomplete records when it comes to immigration. They note that, “in a time of economic insecurity, both candidates have drawn attention to their efforts to promote security measures, respect the rule of law and, in the case of Obama, promote greater flexibility for a younger generation of immigrants.”

Yet, these efforts are “piecemeal” at best. It is impossible to address immigration without comprehensive reform, integrating multiple factors—security, economic, humanitarian—into an effective system.

The final point of the Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Economic Justice states, “With the continuing growth of international economic interdependence—and interdependence of many other kinds—governments bear ever-increasing responsibility to work together to build international institutions and protocols that will strengthen justice, including economic justice, among all peoples and states.”

International economic interdependence refers to more than just institutions and corporations; it applies all the way down to individual, international workers—on whom we do, in fact, depend and deserve to be treated justly.

But how can we hope to build an immigration system that strengthens justice for immigrants and citizens alike while maintaining an inward view? We cannot. Immigration reform requires a focus that is both domestic- and foreign-minded in nature, which neither candidate offers right now.

Perhaps in another scenario this all might have been different. But when Romney selected Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate, he simultaneously selected “the economy” as the issue to define the 2012 election season.

Meanwhile, the United States’ immigration policies are anything but effective, and they continue to fail those who continue to support our economy, even as it flounders. If candidates hope to fix the economy, they should recognize that immigration reform is an economic priority. And inherent in any good economic policy should be the emphasis on interdependence, acknowledging that the economy—like immigration—is not merely a domestic issue.

-Melissa Steffan is a 2012 graduate of Seattle Pacific University with degrees in Communications – Journalism and Political Science. She is a former intern of the Washington Post and the Center for Public Justice, and she is the 2012-13 Editorial Resident for Christianity Today magazine. You can follow her on Twitter at @melissasteffan.