Lunch time brown-bag seminar "How (street-)level bureaucrats construct immigration policies?" // October 7, 1pm-2pm

Location: Pleinlaan 5, Floor -1, Lisbon Room
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At the end of August 2019, Carla Mascia and Andrew Crosby both defended their PhDs on the concrete implementation of immigration policies by (street-)level bureaucrats. Carla Mascia was a joint PhD student at (GERME) Université Libre de Bruxelles and (IES) Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Andrew Crosby studied at VUB, did his PhD at (GERME) ULB and recently started as postdoctoral researcher at (IES) VUB again. On 7 October, during a short and informal brown-bag lunchtime seminar (from 1 to 2 pm, VUB, Pleinlaan 5, Lisbon Room, floor: -1), they will present the main findings of their PhDs and discuss them with you. If you would like to join, please register at the latest on Friday 4 October at

You find the abstracts below.


Constructing undesirability, Justifying Undesirability. The implementation of family reunification policies

PhD thesis by Carla Mascia

It is often argued that EU member states have restricted their migration policies since the early 2000s. Migration scholars point out that the introduction of restrictive measures aims less at restricting than selecting migrants and preventing the arrival of “unwanted” migrants, such as family migrants. Family reunification policy has long been understudied. However, more recently, migration scholars have demonstrated how racial and economic criteria contribute to the construction of “(un)wanted” migrant families. 

This literature, however, tends to neglect what happens after legislative texts are written down, and that the policy-making process continues during the implementation phase. Drawing on street-level bureaucracy literature, this thesis addresses this gap by focusing on the implementation of family reunification policies in Europe and, more precisely, in Belgium.

The thesis relies on ethnographic methods, and particularly on extensive fieldwork in the Belgian Immigration Office, which processes the applications for family reunification. The empirical material reveals that the work of migration officers is twofold. First, they categorize family migrants according to notions of suspicion and trust and, second, they attempt to legally justify the refusal of those who are defined as suspicious. Such findings shed light on the political role of administration: migration officers define, in practice, how the selection of migrant families looks like. However their selection remains constrained by the need to legally justify refusals, as to prevent potential appeals against the decisions made. This highlights that migration officers do not act in a vacuum but are constrained by the judiciary power. However, our results show that the justification of negative decisions by civil servants is not only driven by the willingness to comply with existing jurisprudence. In certain cases, the administration disagrees with court judgements invalidating refusal’ motives, continue to use similar grounds for refusal and go to court to defend their own interpretation of which families should be prevented from settling in Belgium. This leads us to reconsider the political role of the administration as conceived by street-level bureaucracy scholars: migration officers do not only redefine the policy through the application of general law in individual cases but they are also willing to influence the production of jurisprudence. This double agency of migration bureaucrats should motivate scholars even more to not just study migration policies on paper, but in practice.


The autonomisation of migration policy. Emergence, organisation, and power of immigration detention in Belgium.

PhD thesis by Andrew Crosby

This thesis focuses on the functioning of immigration detention centres in Belgium. It looks at both the daily practices and at their evolutions through time. The thesis illustrates that what is known as the “humanisation” of detention is, in fact, a transformation of the forms of security work through its articulation with the different forms of care and social work.

In particular the thesis illustrates how the daily practices of security evolved from a classical disciplinary approach to maintaining order in the centres, which was enacted by security teams, to a “biographical approach” in which social assistants, educators, nurses and psychologists observe and assess individual behaviour of detainees and then sit together to establish individual risk profiles on the basis of which decisions are taken concerning detainees in view of maintaining order in the most effective way. In other words, the thesis illustrates how these categories of staff, officially recruited to provide social services and care, have actually become risk managers. It follows that humanisation does not place the detainee at the centre of its preoccupations, but the efficiency of the organisation.

The analysis is based on ethnographic fieldwork in three different Belgian detention centres carried out between October 2014 and December 2015. During this fieldwork I conducted participatory observations, interviewed staff of all different categories of staff, had many informal exchanges with staff as well as detainees, had access to grey literature and organised discussion groups with detainees. To objectify the findings from the fieldwork I used Bourdieusean field theory, which enabled me to establish the dominant and dominated discourses, positions and position-takings, and the different oppositions that traversed the centres. This made it possible to analyse the evolutions of the centres from a diachronic perspective over time, as well as from a synchronic perspective between centres.

The data from the fieldwork point towards the centrality “security” as a structuring principle of daily work and organisation in the centres. This structuring principle makes it possible to understand how humanisation transformed the work of social workers and caregivers into a new form of security. From a wider diachronic perspective, the principle of security appears to be the structuring principle of migration policy production. From this perspective, I treat the birth of immigration detention as a form of autonomisation of migration policy production. As such, the thesis also adopts a socio-historic perspective that sheds light on the background and context in which contemporary immigration detention emerges and why, though not being considered a penal or punitive measure, it nonetheless emerged and evolved as a security practice.