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Beyond the Classroom: Kanstroom Instills Passion for Social Change

In a year riddled with countless global issues, Daniel Kanstroom’s drive to create a positive social impact and teach others to do the same is refreshing. The Boston College Law School professor has dedicated his life to practicing immigration law and instilling in his students his own passion for social change.

Kanstroom’s career path wasn’t exactly linear. He grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and after receiving his undergraduate degree from Binghamton University, he decided to move out of the United States. While living around Europe, he became both a writer and a musician. 

“I lived in Europe and then traveled throughout Europe and the United States, performing original music which I envisioned as being both aesthetically the best I could do, but also I was part of a tradition of music that was trying to change the world for the better,” Kanstroom said. 

He also spent part of his post-undergraduate time traveling in Central America. After a few years, Kanstroom decided it was time to shift gears again. Traveling the world, engaging with other cultures, and performing music instilled in him a drive to help others, he said. 

During his travels, there was a great amount of unrest in the world. El Salvador was undergoing civil war, and Haiti, Nicaragua, and Chile were also facing conflict. The mistreatment of so many people influenced Kanstroom to want to learn more about human rights, he said. 

“I decided to go to law school in order to learn more about where rights came from and about comparative understandings of justice, and also to be a lawyer and to try to help people,” he said.

Initially, he said, he thought that being a civil rights or labor lawyer was his calling, since he had experience working alongside struggling artists who could be helped by this field.

Once he entered law school at Northeastern University, though, he began drifting into immigration law circles, he said.

“Immigration, human rights, and politics were all mixed together in compelling ways for me,” Kanstroom said. “I came to the conclusion that that’s what I wanted to devote my life to.” 

Not only is immigration one of the most pressing issues in society, it’s also an incredibly nuanced and high-stakes field, according to Kanstroom.

“Immigration is a particularly compelling area because it’s the place where the power of the nation-state is at its absolute maximum and the power of the individual is at its absolute minimum,” Kanstroom said.

When representing an immigrant and protecting them from the adverse effects of state power, the consequences are high—they may be facing separation from their children, going to a detention center, or being sent back into the arms of their persecutors, Kanstroom said. 

He started as a professor at BC Law in 1992, teaching legal research and writing to first-year students. While he believed that these skills are important, he felt called to do more, he said.

Kanstroom established the Boston College Immigration Clinic, which allows law students to provide legal counsel to asylum-seekers and noncitizens.

“I always wanted to expand the work I was doing, so little by little I was able to convince people at BC that we needed not just a class in immigration law, but a clinical program where students could actually represent clients for credit,” Kanstroom said.

It wasn’t until a few years into his professorship that he was able to get the program off the ground. The program continues to directly involve graduate students in this legal field, and is currently run by Mary Holper, a former student of Kanstroom’s and BC Law ’03.

Throughout his work in immigration law, Kanstroom has not been alone. He has prioritized incorporating his students—some of whom have ended up as immigration lawyers, immigration judges, and even immigration law professors—as much as possible.

In 2015, students in BC’s Immigration Clinic, alongside law students from other Jesuit schools, served almost 300 migrants in Central America. Led by Kanstroom and Holper, these students strung their findings together in a report titled “A Fair Chance for Due Process: Challenges in Legal Protection for Central American Asylum Seekers and Other Vulnerable Migrants,” which has been influential in understanding the challenges facing migrants and asylum seekers.

Kanstroom also co-founded BC Law’s immigration Spring Break trips, which provide another avenue for students to get hands-on experience in the field of immigration law. 

Susan Finegan, BC Law ’91, worked on asylum cases with Kanstroom when she took his Immigration Law class—an experience which she said inspired her to do pro-bono and immigration work for her career. 

Other students of Kanstroom’s go on to do things that are unrelated to immigration law or pro-bono law. Even after time in the classroom, Kanstroom leaves an impact on students, Puneet Dhaliwal, BC Law ’21, said.

“After taking two of Professor Kanstroom’s classes, I think that he is a unique law professor in the sense that he makes people think about their role in the system,” Dhaliwal said. “At every stage of teaching and supervising my research, it was always [encouraged] to take a step back and realize the power you potentially have as a law student and your role in reshaping the world.”

Dhaliwal was one of Kanstroom’s research assistants for his upcoming book, Deportation World, which he started two and a half years ago. He involved Dhaliwal in the book after she went to his office hours and told him about her own experiences, she said.

He first gave Dhaliwal a chapter from his previous book so that she would have a better grasp on his voice. Then, he put her in charge of a twenty-page chapter about immigration in India before COVID-19. 

In order to get the information he needed for Deportation World, Kanstroom traveled internationally, from Mexico to France. When the pandemic hit, he was in San José, Costa Rica at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. He caught the last flight to the United States before the U.S. started quarantining travelers, he said. 

A goal of his book, he said, is to change preconceived views on immigration.

“Some people look at the state of immigration control, and they take a very pessimistic view,” Kanstroom said. “On the other hand, there are people who take, what I think, is an unduly optimistic view, which is that human rights law and international law are evolving to give greater and greater rights to people refugees … and I think that’s wrong too—I think the answer is somewhere in the middle.”

While the pandemic inhibited his ability to travel and do more research, Kanstroom had other worries, he said.

“I haven’t been able to travel anymore to do my research, but more importantly to me, what’s happened with COVID is that suddenly everybody has accepted this idea of shutting down borders, so it has really reinforced the narrative of the nation-state for people,” Kanstroom said. “I think that’s going to pass eventually, I hope.”

Looking to the future, Kanstroom said he is open to starting something new.

“I’m going to finish this book up and then take a breath and see what the next thing is,” he said. “I’m not sure what it is yet, but it’ll be something about human rights I’m sure. And I love teaching, so I plan to continue doing that.”

Kanstroom said few people pursue social-impact careers because money is an important factor in choosing a career. But, after years of creating positive change in the field of immigration law, Kanstroom understands the importance of people feeling passionate about the career they’re devoting their time to, he said.

“I can honestly say that I’ve been able to get out of bed every morning and say I’m really interested in what I’m doing,” Kanstroom said. “And I think that’s good, and I feel good about it, and I feel my children feel good that I did it, and, you know, and I feel like I’ve actually made a difference in the world.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Daniel Kanstroom

April 4, 2021