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BIRMM Spotlight: The administrative power of immigration officers: A study of discretionary decision-making in the enforcement of immigration laws

  • December 8, 2021

This BIRMM Spotlight is about the decision-making practices of the Immigration Department. Lars Breuls tells us more about this project. Read the full interview here.

Can you introduce yourself?

I am Lars Breuls and I am a postdoctoral researcher at the department of Criminology of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Before starting as a postdoctoral researcher, I have been involved in several research projects. For example, I conducted research on decision-making practices regarding persons released early from prison. Then I worked on my PhD, an ethnographic study in Belgian and Dutch detention centers where undocumented migrants are detained in view of deportation. I defended my PhD in 2020. The postdoctoral research I am starting now builds on this earlier expertise, focusing both on decision-making and on practices of migration control.

Can you tell us more about this project?

In my PhD I described how detainees in immigration detention were extremely frustrated with the decision-making processes of the Immigration Department: they continuously challenged the legitimacy of such decisions. Staff in the detention centers could often do nothing more than refer to decision-makers elsewhere - at the Immigration Department headquarters. So, different people in different places handle the files and responsibilities are frequently placed elsewhere. Thompson already described this a ‘problem of many hands’ in bureaucratic organizations in the 1980s.

Building on these observations, in the current study, I want to study these decision-making practices of the Immigration Department in greater depth. On the one hand I will analyze the decisions themselves, and on the other hand I will follow the work of immigration officers at the Immigration Department headquarters. How are legal considerations made? How are interests such as the right to family life assessed? What impact does higher case law have on decision-making practices? In short, I will study the working practices and decision-making cultures of the 'street-level bureaucrats' who put immigration regulations and policies into practice. It is explicitly the intention to connect these new insights with the experiences and testimonies of the people I have spoken in the detention centers throughout my PhD research.

Can you tell us what is unique about this project?

Decisions on the return of undocumented migrants, on their detention, on the withdrawal of their right of residence, etc. have an enormous disruptive impact on people's lives. Yet there is not so much insight into the decision-making and working practices of migration services. This is largely because researchers have difficulty accessing such settings. For example, Annika Lindberg and Lisa Borrelli, two inspiring colleagues, previously wrote an interesting article about this, entitled 'Let the right one in? On European migration authorities' resistance to research'. This research would change that for Belgium, as extensive ethnographic fieldwork will be carried out at the Immigration Department.

What are the objectives for this project?

It is clear that there are many legitimate questions in society about how migration decisions are made, but such decision processes are often a black box. Nevertheless, I think it is important that such decision processes are studied in detail. In this way, an informed debate can be conducted about what a legitimate migration policy should look like.

To learn more about this project and its outcomes, please contact Lars Breuls (

The image used for this spotlight shows the works that Pape (pseudonym), a Senegalese man, made during his incarceration in a detention center. They depict the desperation that incarcerated persons have, among other things, due to the uncertain decision-making practices of the Immigration Department.