Monthly Archives: April 2013

Obama ‘encouraged’ by signs of progress on Senate immigration reform

Senators plan to unveil bill as early as next week but conservatives are wary of citizenship for undocumented migrants, Monday 1 April 2013

Marco Rubio has given the Republican response speech

Over the weekend, Marco Rubio took a markedly less upbeat position than his fellow members of the ‘gang of eight’. Photograph: Jason Reed/Reuters


The Obama administration said on Monday that it was encouraged by signs of progress towards a comprehensive package of immigration reforms that would extend a route to citizenship to the country’s 11 million undocumented migrants.

As cross-party negotiations enter their crucial final stages ahead of the unveiling of an immigration bill in the US Senate as early as next week, the White House is pressing senior congressional leaders to forge ahead with a robust bill that would provide a clear pathway to citizenship. President Obama’s spokesman said that “we are encouraged by the continuing signs of progress”, though he refused to be drawn on the details of the package that are still being thrashed out.

The most politically charged aspect of the draft bill is likely to be the precise terms of a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million. One of Obama’s core principles contained in his blueprint for immigration reform was that undocumented immigrants should be granted a real chance of becoming full US citizens.

But this is seen as a red rag to many Republicans, who interpret it as a form of amnesty that rewards illegal behaviour. Advocates of the reform, including the four Republican and four Democratic senators who make up the bipartisan – dubbed the “gang of eight” – who are framing the legislation, are all too aware that conservative anxieties have to be assuaged if the bill is to have any chance of achieving congressional approval.

That sensitivity helps explain the wobble over the weekend shown by Marco Rubio, the Tea Party-backed senator from Florida and a possible Republican hopeful in 2016. He took a markedly less upbeat position than his fellow members of the Senate group, stressing that the final terms of the bill had yet to be agreed and that it should not be rushed.

Rubio’s ambiguous stance, carefully pitched to address the scepticism of many Republicans while keeping one foot in the reformist camp, was applauded by leading conservatives on Monday. Jeff Sessions, a senior member of the senate judiciary committee from Alabama, said Rubio had underlined that “never again can Congress pass a far-reaching proposal only for the American people to find out what’s in it later. What we need, and must have, is a full and thorough national discussion over every component of this bill.”

Carney said that White House staffers were engaged with the group of eight senators over drafting the legislation and denied that Obama was keeping in the background to avoid giving Republican opponents of the bill a target. But he refused to answer questions about how difficult the president was willing to make the pathway to citizenship in order to overcome conservative resistance to reform.

Details of the proposals that have been floated in the media include a possible minimum wait time for citizenship for any currently undocumented immigrant that could extend to as long as 13 years. Though individuals would be allowed to “come out of the shadows” relatively quickly and easily, by registering for a work permit, the prolonged delay in processing their claims for full citizenship, combined with possibly steep fines for the illegality of their previous status, could dissuade many from even embarking down the citizenship road.

Groups campaigning for a comprehensive deal that will extend to most if not all of the 11 million undocumented individuals are fearful that if that too many concessions are granted to the Republicans in these last few days of negotiations, then the resulting bill will fail to repair the current broken immigration system. Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said that many people had already been in the US for many years.

“We hope that there will be a path to citizenship that will be welcoming for the vast majority of individuals who need it. If the gang of eight don’t craft something that is accessible, then a substantial number of people won’t be eligible and they’ll continue to be vulnerable to family separation and exploitation, and is that what we really want in America today?”

Academic funding and the public interest: The death of political science

Defunding disciplines like political science means “losing research of value”, writes Kendzior.

Sarah Kendzior
 Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

The Coburn amendment prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding political science research that does not explicitly promote “national security or the economic interests of the United States” [AP]
In October 2012, I criticised the academic paywall system, which requires that ordinary people pay exorbitant prices to access scholarly work. I predicted that this system would lead to a loss of funding for academic research:

In the United States, granting agencies like the National Science Foundation have come under attack by politicians who believe they fund projects irrelevant to public life. But by denying the public access to their work, academics do not allow taxpayers to see where their money is spent. By refusing to engage a broader audience about their research, academics ensure that few will defend them when funding for that research is cut.

My prediction came true. On March 20, 2013, the US Senate passed the Coburn amendment, an initiative which prohibits the National Science Foundation from funding political science research that does not explicitly promote “national security or the economic interests of the United States”.

As a result, the NSF – which currently funds 61 percent of American political science research – will retract nearly all its support. “It’s going to be hard for big political science to continue,” says John McIver, who ran NSF’s Political Science Program in the mid-1990s. Topics the NSF funded in the past included political participation, voting patterns and public culture. What political scientists would have been wise to examine is the culture of academia itself.

The loss of NSF funding is a loss for American political science and for Americans. But it is understandable that most Americans do not recognise the significance of this loss. Academia rewards social scientists who prohibit the spread of knowledge more than those who share it. From paywalls to jargon to a tacit moratorium on social media, academics build careers through public disengagement. They should not be surprised when the public then fails to see the relevance of their work.

Attack on political science funding

Despite its pleas for fiscal prudence, Congress’ attack on political science funding has little to do with money. The NSF Political Science Program costs $11m out of an annual NSF budget of $7.8bn, or less than 0.2 percent. Cutting it will hardly free up funds for the “next-generation robotic limbs” or “life-saving hurricane detection systems” that Senator Tom Coburn, the Republican who spearheaded the cuts, envisions replacing desultory political science rot.

What lies behind the attack on political science? Some have suggested that politicians are reluctant to become the objects of objective research. “Studies of Americans’ attitudes toward the Senate filibuster hold little promise to save an American’s life,” protests Coburn, a senator who regularly uses the filibuster.

Others have noted the anti-intellectualism of the Republican Party and Congress’ refusal to recognise work that does not produce immediate, positive change. (You know, like Congress does.) Supporters of the Coburn amendment argue that academic research is elitist and impractical. “After four years of desperately searching in vain for how my degree could make the world a better place, the lack of real-world impact convinced me to leave a PhD programme in political science,” writes Atlantic writer Greg Ferenstein, in a plea to defund his discipline.

“The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it.”

Arguments over impact and relevance ignore academia’s complicity in its own demise. The biggest problem for academics is not that their work lacks value. It is that the public’s ability to determine the value of academic work is limited by academia itself.

In the aftermath of the Coburn amendment, political scientists took to the internet to translate NSF project descriptions from academese. “Do we really know what turns an impoverished young man into a criminal, a gang member, or a terrorist? Might we want to understand ways to head that off?” asks political scientist Seth Masket, deciphering an abstract which contained the words “neopsyhological” and “manualised”. Masket noted that political scientists have done a poor job explaining their discipline to public officials, the media, or society in general.

He is right. But academics struggling to stay employed are reluctant to relinquish the unwieldy jargon that is the source of so much mockery and misery. Shunning disciplinary norms could cost them in publishing or finding a job. Furthermore, writing in a style decipherable to the public opens one up to public scrutiny. “Bad writing,” argues political scientist Stephen Walt, is “a form of academic camouflage designed to shield the author from criticism.”

But bad writing also shields the author from interest and support – a serious problem when the denial of funding rests on assertions of irrelevance. That is assuming, of course, that the author’s works are accessible at all.

With the majority of academic literature hidden behind a paywall, there is no way for the public to determine whether claims of irrelevance are valid. Instead, they rely on slanted media coverage – “Feds pay $227,000 to study magazine photographs,” crowed the Washington Times – and politicians’ charges of elitism, which paywalls help validate. The paywall sends a signal to the public that their interest in scholarship is unwelcome, even though their money may have helped pay for it.

Exploiting stereotypes of academics

The week the Coburn amendment passed, I spoke at a workshop on Central Asian security issues in Washington, DC. The presenters were researchers; the audience largely policy officials. One of the goals of the workshop was to determine what risks Central Asia faces after NATO withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014.

This is a question of national security – a pragmatic question, the sort of which Senator Coburn approves. But what we found during the discussion is how heavily our knowledge of Central Asian relies on the in-depth, long-term studies of objective scholars. Academic analysis of Central Asia has shed light on Islamic practice, ethnic conflict and state repression – issues of complexity important to shaping policy, but best studied by trained social scientists without a political agenda. The work of academic researchers was often funded through government programmes – and now that the government has cut funding, knowledge of the region will decrease.

There is no doubt that defunding disciplines like political science means we will lose research of value. There is also no doubt the government will seize any opportunity it can to axe programmes it deems of little significance. What is in doubt is the willingness of academics to forestall budgetary cuts by allowing the public to see the value of their work.

When scholars and society are considered separate, it is politicians like Tom Coburn who benefit. Politicians are able to exploit stereotypes of academics because academia blocks access to its best line of defence: its research.

There is no excuse, in the digital age, for continuing to suppress ideas and insight behind jargon and paywalls. We cannot debate what is in the public interest if the public has no way to discover what interests them.

Sarah Kendzior is a writer and analyst who studies digital media and politics. She has a PhD in anthropology from Washington University.

NKRG Seminar: The Growth of North Korean Refugee Claimants in Canada – Thursday April 04

Location: Munk School of Public Affairs

Date: Thu Apr 04
Time: 2:30 PM – 4:30 PM 108N, North House

Speaker: Sonia Ryang, Professor of Anthropology and International Studies; C. Maxwell & Elizabeth M. Stanley Family and Korea Foundation Chair of Korean Studies, University of Iowa

The North Korea Research Group (NKRG) will present its research on the situation of North Korean refugee claimants in Canada and Toronto. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada shows that the number of North Korean refugee claimants in Canada has dramatically increased in the past few years.

The aim of this seminar is to consider the reasons that possibly explain this phenomenon, and better understand the settlement process of refugees, particularly in Toronto. In addition, we examine the role of non-governmental refugee organizations to highlight the differences in their approach and objectives. The social consequences and inter-group tensions of these developments are also addressed.

Our research is based on access-to-information requests to the government, interviews with various local organizations, and specific legal case studies. The content of our research presents original and up-to-date information on this important, yet largely unfamiliar issue.