The recent course of events surrounding the influx of undocumented children into the United States from Central America has set in motion the process of opening a policy window for substantial progress on immigration reform legislation. The dramatic humanitarian nature of children rushing to the U.S. border has catapulted the issue of immigration back on the national agenda. There has been a significant increase in public attention and a new fervor to solve the intergovernmental puzzle that is immigration policy in the United States. The time frame for the issue being on the agenda will likely be limited as eventually the public will grow weary of the story and realize the difficulty in bringing about a meaningful solution. This is generally followed by a sharp decline in public enthusiasm and interest and the dropping of the immigration issue from the legislative agenda.
This process of getting "problems" onto the nation's agenda can be characterized as the "problem stream" of political theorist John Kingdon's multiple streams theory. His theory posited that when three streams (the problem stream, politics stream, and policy stream) are joined then a policy window is able to open up. Policy windows open up very infrequently and often close shortly after they are opened. For example, the March on Washington and Birmingham campaign of 1963 created the climate in the problem stream that led to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The politics stream was represented by President Lyndon Johnson's 68 seat majority in the U.S. Senate and the policy stream had been in place through proposed measures like New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell's "Powell Amendment" that required that federal funds be denied to any jurisdiction that maintained segregation. This amendment was eventually integrated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after the policy window had been opened. It had previously been rejected on bill after bill because the policy window was closed.
With the problem stream now in place in the area of immigration; potential policy solutions and improvements are there amongst the hodgepodge of previous proposals in the area of immigration from the D.R.E.A.M. Act to the Senate's Gang of Eight proposal. The biggest hurdle to opening the policy window has been the politics stream in this current political environment of hyper-partisanship. This hurdle has the potential to be overcome by the growing pressure that is now being placed on both political parties to produce legislation. Political interests as divergent as liberal Senators like Robert Menendez of New Jersey to conservative Senators like Ted Cruz of Texas are now saying that it is imperative to pass immigration reform measures.
The upcoming midterm elections and the growing Hispanic voter population that is disproportionately impacted from the lack of comprehensive immigration reform legislation may be enough to put the crucial politics stream in place. It will take continued vigilance from everyone on the issue of immigration reform to push pass the political grandstanding and posturing to a demand for Congress to take advantage of this open policy window to pass meaningful comprehensive immigration reform. Fifty years after the passage of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act we may be on the cusp of passing another historic piece of legislation if have the focus and endurance to make it happen.
Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Education for a Better America and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Administration at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University