On the Frontlines of Immigration Reform: Forms of Practice Discretion
Methods: The study takes a modified grounded theory approach involving in-depth interviews. Thirty social workers and other frontline human services workers were recruited through snowball sampling. Interviews involving open-ended questions ranged from 60 to 110 minutes. Audio-tape transcripts were analyzed largely following a constant comparative approach (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Codes and categories were formed partly through an inductive process (representing the interviewees’ phrases, descriptions, and interpretations) and partly from theory and other empirical work addressing frontline practice with immigrant families. Member checking and negative case analysis were employed.
Results: Results illustrate varying practice responses to organizational policy, as well as to federal and state law. Discretionary practices are classified in four categories reflecting two dimensions: Client-Centered versus Self-Protective; and Rule-Compliant versus Rule-Defiant. For example, told to stop serving undocumented immigrants, one respondent illustrated a Client-Centered/Rule-Defiant form of practice discretion in reporting, “We did it anyway.” Frontline workers grant varying importance and legitimacy to the notion of immigrant “documentation” or “authorization.” Whereas some accept the state-imposed criterion and use it to guide practice, others downplay its objective meaning and emphasize its subjective role in fostering stigma and fear.
Implications: In contexts of immigration policy reform, frontline practice discretion is important to policy implementation, especially when new policies conflict with professional and/or personal values and ethics. Most studies of practice discretion, including this one, illustrate “self-protective” uses of discretion (e.g., prioritizing clients that are easiest to help). This study’s classification of discretion, however, also specifies forms of “client-centered” discretion, including practices that involve defying organizational rules. Such examples illustrate ways of leveraging professional power to advance client interests (Hasenfeld, 1987). The taxonomy of frontline practice discretion illustrated in this study can be tested in other practice contexts. If found to widely apply, it can constitute a step toward identifying individual and organizational conditions that foster client-centered uses of discretion, even in difficult practice and policy contexts.