BC Law’s Immigration Clinic Blends Theory and Practice



n the late ’80s and early ’90s, law students tended to drift toward a similar group of career options—property law and contract law, among others. Immigration law was considered something of a sideline practice. When Boston College Law School (BC Law) professor Daniel Kanstroom decided to pursue immigration law, he recalls that his mentors advised him against it. Why, they asked him, would you pursue a job in this specific field?

From a young age, Kanstroom always thought about his life as being dedicated to progressive social change. His father was a union printer of the New York Times and his grandmother was a member of the Emma Lazarus Society. Named after the poet who wrote the sonnet inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, the society aided immigrant women as they came to America. While in high school and college, he thought he could actualize this calling through writing. But slowly, he came to the conclusion that law was a good place to channel those influences, particularly because he could learn to understand how power is exercised.

“If you want to make change in a meaningful way, it would be, first of all, interesting to understand what power is,” Kanstroom said. “And second, useful to be able to deploy it on behalf of people who don’t have power.”

Now, in 2019, where every top law school has multiple faculty members teaching immigration law, it seems like a shock that a distinguished law professor like Kanstroom was nudged away from pursuing a career in the field back in the ’80s. It’s thanks to professors like Kanstroom, and his student mentees, that BC Law has the flourishing Immigration Clinic it does today.

BC Law has always striven to fulfill BC’s foremost Jesuit ideal—serving others. Before Kanstroom arrived on the scene, BC Law, like many other law schools at the time, had no immigration program in place. Kanstroom began teaching a course called Legal Researching and Writing at the law school. Shortly after, he started urging Daniel Coquillette, the then-dean, to look into introducing immigration law.

“I thought immigration law was a perfect subject for our law school because of the way in which it fit into not only the demographic history of BC … but also in the deepest ethical tradition of what this university is about,” Kanstroom said. “Thinking about human dignity, rights, and working on behalf of the marginalized … Seeing people as people. These I felt were all things in the culture of BC.”

Kanstroom began to implement his goal by teaching a course in immigration law. Before long, however, he realized that when it comes to immigration law, theory and practice have to go hand in hand—neglecting to complement one with the other would just be doing his students a disservice. Aware of this, during the time he spent teaching his course, Kanstroom was eager to provide his students with hands-on opportunities to work with practicing lawyers in the realm of immigration law. 

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Soon, Kanstroom had reached the point where he was pushing for BC Law to call it like it was: He believed his immigration law course, now intertwined with externship opportunities he provided for his students, had to be officially named an immigration clinic.

Kanstroom spearheaded BC Law’s effort to begin a full-fledged immigration clinic and was ultimately named the director of the BC Law Immigration Clinic. Just as he had started small by pushing to teach a course on immigration law, he started to piece the clinic together, little by little. The BC Law Immigration Clinic began by recruiting fellows to work with law students in taking on cases. 

Current BC Law professor Mary Holper, who was a student of Kanstroom’s, worked as a fellow for two years in the clinic before getting hired at the Roger Williams University (RWU) School of Law in Rhode Island. Kanstroom and Holper, mentor and mentee, respectively, share a similar backstory—one riddled with roots of social activism.

Holper was raised by parents who encouraged her to look beyond the confines of where she was growing up. Her mother, who taught English as a second language, introduced Holper to the allure of foreign languages. Holper’s high school French teacher sparked her love of the language and, after studying abroad in France, she began to consider a career in immigration law.

During her junior year at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Holper went abroad to Paris in 1997. While she was there, she remembers France, and Europe as a whole, as standing in opposition to immigration. She spent her time in a dorm that was mostly made up of students studying abroad.

“I just felt the impact of it a little bit more, empathizing with my fellow dormmates,” she said. “That’s what got me interested in immigration. It wasn’t just interest in meeting people from other cultures, but [I could see firsthand] what it felt like to live in a time that was anti-immigrant.”

Holper began her career in immigration law in Washington, D.C., where she represented and advised clients in detention. After working as a fellow under Kanstroom, Holper took her talents to RWU Law and, just as Kanstroom had before her, started an immigration clinic at the law school.

Having complete autonomy over what cases the immigration clinic at RWU Law decided to take, Holper occasionally took referrals, but mainly focused on clients who were detained. Because many nonprofit organizations didn’t have the means or manpower to take on clients who were already in custody, it was important to Holper that she and her students worked on those cases.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#FFFFFF” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”“We have enormous resources and skills we developed over many years, and amazing, smart students that want to [take on the challenge].”” cite=”Daniel Kanstroom” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

Her position as the director of the RWU Law Immigration Clinic helped shape Holper’s “tough cases only” mindset. So, when Kanstroom began to search for a replacement as the new director of the BC Law Immigration Clinic about six years ago, he found a perfect fit in his former fellow, Holper. Kanstroom was beginning to move into human rights law at BC Law and was looking for someone to eventually take over. Holper returned to BC Law to succeed Kanstroom as director of the clinic, with her experience in tow, ready to take on the challenge.

“I should say, for the record, she was one of the best students I ever had,” Kanstroom said of Holper. “And I’m so proud she’s running this program now.”

Put in charge of the Immigration Clinic, Holper asked herself three questions.

“What does the world need us to do?” she said. “What are we good at doing? What do we enjoy doing?”

By we, Holper means herself and the devoted student body that she oversees in the clinic. Similar to when she was working at RWU, Holper and her students mainly focus on detained cases. She and her students enjoy taking them, and most importantly, she says, they’re good at it. Following in Kanstroom’s footsteps, Holper and her students still try to take on the hardest cases.

“There are a couple reasons for that, one of which is obligation,” Kanstroom explained. “We have enormous resources and skills we developed over many years, and amazing, smart students that want to [take on the challenge].”

On top of that, both Kanstroom and Holper recognize that most lawyers won’t handle the difficult cases the clinic does, or if they decide to, they have to charge their clients an exorbitant amount.

Of course, this means that Holper has, unfortunately, had to turn away some client referrals for people who aren’t in detention. But as Kanstroom said, the Immigration Clinic hopes to both equip its students for a career in immigration law and serve the clients as best it can.

“We’re not trying to create mediocre lawyers or average lawyers,” Kanstroom said. “We’re trying to create excellent lawyers who are smart and know what they’re doing and [more importantly], why they’re doing it.”

And Kanstroom and Holper, among the many other BC Law professors, are doing just that. Caroline Holliday, BC Law ’20, is in her final year of law school. Last year, in the fall of 2018, she spent her time under the wing of Holper in the Immigration Clinic. Holliday credits Holper’s incredible mentoring skills for allowing her to comfortably and confidently take on three different immigration cases—a bond hearing, a case surrounding domestic abuse in South America, and a case where Holliday argued a client’s full merits in court.

[Holper] is an extremely energetic and passionate professor,” Holliday said. “We were doing a lot of new things, like going to detention centers. …  I think she was wonderful about boosting our confidence and giving us all the tools to succeed in these new environments. She’s passionate, creative, and a very caring professor, as well as being incredibly impressive in terms of her mastery of immigration law and policy.”

Holliday stands as a testament to Kanstroom’s and Holper’s hopes that BC Law will continue to produce excellent lawyers. After graduation, Holliday will spend a year clerking for a federal judge in Delaware. Once that year is up, Holliday plans to return to Boston to work at the law firm Foley Hoag. Inspired by the firm’s strong immigration pro bono practice, Holliday will be applying everything she learned from Holper, Kanstroom, and the clinic as she continues to handle the toughest cases.

[aesop_quote type=”block” background=”#282828″ text=”#FFFFFF” width=”100%” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”“[I can be] feeling so down in the dumps about ever winning a case, and then the next day my students call me and say, ‘One of our clients just got released from jail. It’s a breath of fresh air that gets pumped into you. You’re like, okay, I can go back, I can do it again. It’s not that demoralizing.”” cite=”Mary Holper” parallax=”off” direction=”left” revealfx=”off”]

Holliday is one of the many students both Kanstroom and Holper have guided through court cases. Kanstroom, after creating the clinic, understands the difficulty of giving a student in the clinic complete independence. Holper is now in charge of walking the fine line between giving her students room to lead their own cases while making sure she provides enough supervision so that clients have a chance at the best outcome possible.

Kanstroom’s legacy lives on in Holper’s work, as she continues to guide her students with the same delicate precision Kanstroom did before her. Holper’s priority as a mentor is really, really good communication, she says. From day one, she tells her students that she’d rather hear more information than less. Any small details, any small concern, Holper is ready to help. Ultimately, she reminds them, it’s a responsibility to make sure they’re doing all that they can for their clients.

Holper also understands the intensity and complexities of immigration law. Even seasoned lawyers in the field make mistakes.

“Though the consequences of that can be very grave, I don’t want the anxiety level of everyone going into this field to be like, ‘I can’t even take one case or else I’m going to be this ball of nerves,’” she said. “Just try as hard as you can to enjoy it while you’re in it, work hard … that’s the best we can do.”

When it comes to practicing immigration law, the odds are almost always against Holper and her students. Losing case after case, Holper explains, wears down even the most weathered immigration lawyers. At the end of the day, though, one small victory reminds her of why she’s doing this line of work.

“[I can be] feeling so down in the dumps about ever winning a case, and then the next day my students call me and say, ‘One of our clients just got released from jail,’” she said. “It’s a breath of fresh air that gets pumped into you. You’re like, okay, I can go back, I can do it again. It’s not that demoralizing.”

Holper, Kanstroom, and the many students they’ve mentored and continue to mentor make up a small percentage of the population of immigration lawyers who continue to fight for immigrant rights under the current administration. Throughout the constant ups and downs that working at the clinic has produced, Holper has always kept the two goals in mind—educating her students and helping her clients.

“The most rewarding part [about my job] is when I watch the students understand what’s going on, grasp it, and own it,” she said. “Watching the clients in the hands of the students, knowing how much the clients look to us for assistance, knowing how much the system is trying to make sure they don’t win … I feel very good knowing [the clients] are in good hands.”

Featured Image by Celine Lim / Heights Editor

Maeve Reilly

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One thought on “BC Law’s Immigration Clinic Blends Theory and Practice

  1. The Birth and Vital Life of BC Law’s Immigration Clinic | Boston College Law School Magazine October 7, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    […] To read more about how Kanstroom and Holper discovered their calling in the law and how their choices are making a difference for many of the nation’s most despairing, click here. […]

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