Karla McKanders joined the Thurgood Marshall Institute as its Director in June 2023, bringing with her extensive experience in teaching Critical Race Theory and Immigration Law at Vanderbilt University Law School. Notably, she was the Associate Director of Vanderbilt’s Clinical Program where she also served as the Founding Director of the Immigration Practice Clinic, supervising students in providing vital representation to asylum seekers and unaccompanied minor children in humanitarian immigration cases. Her work encompassed appearances before the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and federal courts of appeals.
Throughout her scholarship, McKanders has focused on the normative theme of how the law reifies race by legislating cultural norms that perpetuate racial divisions and hierarchies in the United States. Her insightful research has been published in esteemed law journals such as the Georgia State Law Review, Harvard Journal on Racial and Ethnic Justice, University of Iowa’s Gender Race and Social Justice Law Journal, and Catholic Law Review. In her recent publication titled Immigration and Racial Justice: Enforcing the Borders of Blackness (GA. ST. U. L. Rev., 2021), she addresses the disproportionate detention and surveillance of Black immigrants resulting from immigration enforcement operating without many of the protections afforded by the criminal legal system. McKanders continues to contribute to the field with forthcoming articles like Decolonizing Colorblind Asylum Narratives (67:3 ST. LOUIS U. L. J., 2023) and Deconstructing Race in U.S. Immigration Law Origin Stories (37 MD. J. INT’L L., 2022). Her expertise has earned her recognition as a legal authority, with citations in reputable news outlets such as Reuters, ABC News, and Al-Jazeera. Additionally, she has authored opinion editorials to educate and influence public debate on critical civil rights issues.
Previously, McKanders served as a visiting associate professor of law at Howard University School of Law during the 2016-17 academic year, where she directed the Civil Rights Clinic. Her leadership in the clinic facilitated collaboration with esteemed organizations like LDF and the Advancement Project, resulting in appellate and Supreme Court Amicus briefs in civil rights and social justice litigation. Before her time at Vanderbilt, she held a tenured associate professorship at the University of Tennessee College of Law. In 2011, McKanders received a Fulbright grant to lecture on refugee and humanitarian law in Rabat, Morocco, where she also played a crucial role in establishing a refugee legal aid organization. In 2018, she was selected as the Scholar in Residence at the Hilary Clinton Center for Gender at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco. During her residency, she examined the application of the Refugee Convention, focusing on the barriers faced by individuals with gender-based reasons for fleeing persecution and asylum seekers of African descent in obtaining refugee status under existing legal frameworks. Additionally, in 2019, she served as the editor of the volume Arabs at Home and in the World: Human Rights, Gender Politics, and Identity, collaborating with scholars from the Middle East, North Africa, and the United States.
McKanders’ contributions extend beyond academia as she has held leadership positions such as Chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration and serves as an Advisory Committee member for the James Lawson Institute for the Research and Study of Nonviolent Movements at Vanderbilt University. In recognition of her exceptional teaching abilities and contributions to the national immigration law community, she received the prestigious 2023 Elmer Fried Excellence in Teaching Award from the national American Immigration Lawyer Association.
Prior to her academic career, Professor McKanders clerked for the Honorable Damon J. Keith on the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, in Detroit. She obtained her law degree from Duke University and completed her undergraduate studies at Spelman College.