The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

On the Frontlines of Immigration Reform: Forms of Practice Discretion

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 11:45 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon C, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Brenda D. Smith, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Bethany G. Womack, MSW, Doctoral Student and Research Assistant, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL
Purpose:  Immigration reform is affecting human service providers across the country.  As a result of new federal and state immigration policies, social workers and others on the frontlines are facing new ethical dilemmas and practice challenges, but we know little about how they are responding.  The theory of street-level bureaucracy (Lipsky, 1980) suggests that policy is actually implemented on the frontlines where practitioners exercise discretion in responding to competing demands.  Practice discretion is particularly critical in contexts of policy change and uncertainty (Evans & Harris, 2004).  Some argue that the “capacity to do ‘good social work’ is constrained by immigration policies” (NASW, 2008, p.8), particularly when immigrant clients are undocumented.  Yet, whereas some social workers report that their “hands were often tied” (Jones, 2008, p.49) when working with unauthorized immigrant clients, others argue that documentation status does not influence interactions with immigrant families (Ayon, 2009).  This qualitative study aims to illuminate:  (1) specific types of discretionary practices social workers and other frontline human services workers use when working with immigrant families, and (2) the meaning of immigrant documentation status to workers at the frontlines.

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.