Justice and Mercy in American Immigration

A profile of Danielle Huntley ‘05.

By Lauren Bobbitt '09


Voices speaking into the conversational sea of immigration policy are ubiquitous these days – from official executive orders to Facebook posts. Immigration is everywhere, simultaneously over-simplified by pundits, but also incredibly complex and delicate when faced with establishing actual policy prescriptions. From the midst of this multitude of voices, I had the pleasant opportunity to speak with Danielle Huntley, an informed voice who speaks with conviction, compassion, and clear-eyed realism about the state of American immigration and, perhaps more importantly, about the people known to most of us simply as “immigrants.”

Danielle ’05 is an immigration attorney. She lives in Boston, where she recently launched her own practice – Huntley, Inc. – to provide legal support for businesses, investors, and individuals as they navigate the American immigration system. Though a licensed attorney in the state of Massachusetts, Danielle can work with clients around the country and the world because immigration is a federal issue. Many of her clients have never met Danielle in person, instead collaborating by phone, chat, and various other technologies. Our phone conversation - layered between her lunch meeting with a Catholic priest and singing at a confirmation in her parish - captured Danielle in her natural element. Despite the physical separation, her energy and strength of presence are palpable - qualities that must surely bring confidence and hope to her clients.

As a child, Danielle wanted to be a lawyer ever since the OJ Simpson trial captivated her attention and imagination. In the midst of her undergraduate degree, with a clear eye toward practicing law, Danielle participated in the Witherspoon Fellowship in 2005. The experience had a significant impact on her life. “I have a tendency to be cynical,” she admits, “and Witherspoon showed me how important it is to be engaged in the public square.” The first-principles approach encouraged thoughtful, sensitive reflection on fundamental principles of law and ethics. “Anyone could benefit from that because we were looking at [core questions like] ‘Where does our country come from?’” Many of the ideas and convictions that shaped her during that experience have informed her life and work ever since – serving as a profound reminder that “formation never goes away.”

While pursuing her law degree at Boston College, Danielle did not specifically intend to pursue immigration law. Her early years after graduation working for Lataif, LLC, however, lead her to this niche, and she has come to find great passion and satisfaction there. Such a highly specialized legal service has also made it easier to start her own practice, she says, thanks to its simplified, well-defined purpose.

Immersed daily, now, in the complex American immigration system, and like the skilled lawyer that she is, Danielle speaks forthrightly and judiciously about the system that defines her work. She starts by stating flatly: “We really need comprehensive immigration reform.” But on such a partisan issue, she perceives gaps in both conservative and liberal views of immigration reform. Frequently in conversation with friends on both sides, Danielle recognizes the importance of approaching the issue moderately and believes strongly that “people of goodwill can disagree on immigration policy.”

“A lot of it depends on how you frame the issue,” she says. “We need to get away from ‘everyone is a criminal and here illegally,’ as is often the case on the Right, and also move away from the Left’s belief that ‘we have a responsibility to take every single refugee or migrant.’”

Danielle’s perspective is informed heavily by the fact that, for her, “immigrants” are real names, real faces, real people, and she has to face reality with them on a daily basis. “On the granular level, this is one person and their family. This is one company and their client. What’s hard for me is trying to convey that to people who are entrenched in a political opinion about the issue. Because I think people of goodwill can disagree about immigration policy. And I think there is so much noise around it that we can’t figure out what we want to do.”

“But I think we can come up with a fair system that lands somewhere in between.”

Danielle Huntley '05

Danielle Huntley '05

Fairness is the overriding desire of Danielle’s clients as well. They are all enthusiastic believers in the American dream – in contrast, Danielle notes, to many Americans now – and want the opportunity to pursue that possibility through a just process. Danielle shares their belief, and sees over and over again the kind of cases that merit merciful, nuanced treatment.

“How do we create a system that is fair? There is room in our immigration for both justice and mercy. It’s finding the right balance between the two. I don’t think the average American wants to split up families. And I think the average American is also in favor of having people here who want to start businesses, who want to invest in America.”

Danielle believes these examples of skilled, highly educated, immigrants, like those who want to start businesses here, are essential  to the conversation on immigration. To illustrate, she points to a relevant example: one of her current clients is an Iranian man who was brought here as a child. He is in his late 40s now but is here illegally because his relatives never pursued regularizing his status. He has a U.S citizen wife and U.S. citizen daughters and is a small business owner who has never been on public assistance. But he is terrified to try to address his illegal status because he fears being kicked out of the country and separated from his family. Fortunately, in his case, Danielle says there is an avenue to fix his status. But for many similar cases of contributing, successful immigrants, the prospects are less hopeful.

“There are parts of our system that make life very difficult for the people I think we want in our country. It is very difficult to be an entrepreneur here and be a foreigner. We make it very difficult for people to stay in the United States after they graduate or want to start a business.”

Given the economic benefits of small businesses, not to mention the ethical problems raised by separating families, Danielle exhorts our country to be more discerning in accepting or turning away the very people who can strengthen the economic and social fabric of our nation.

In this vineyard in which she has been called to labor, the harvest is abundant. Danielle enjoys equipping other laborers as well - she works with local churches to educate them about the immigration system from a pragmatic, non-political perspective. When so much of the assistance offered to immigrants focuses on material needs, this kind of training helps move communities to make a more substantive, holistic impact on immigrant populations and individual families.

Danielle is also quick to give due credit to our new president for his role in bringing her area of immigration to the forefront of national consciousness. “I really should send the White House a gift basket,” she jokes.

A resilient sense of humor and good-natured pluck surely serve Danielle well in a line of work that, while rewarding, can be discouraging and draining at times.

“My job puts a lot of pressure on me, in certain respects,” she admits. “Sometimes I think I don’t acknowledge that it does weigh heavy on me at times. It’s a lot to have people relying on you for their ability to stay in the United States, for their lives. It’s very gratifying but it can also create worries.”

How does she handle the burden, for example, of telling a deserving, desperate client that there’s really nothing she can do to help them stay in the U.S. to live and work? “Through prayer,” she says. “Ultimately, I entrust my clients and myself to God and to God’s mercy. It’s my job to do my best and to represent my clients zealously and to the best of my ability. And that’s all I can ask of myself.”

When the stakes are so high, the success stories are treasures. Danielle recalls warmly the first time she called a female client to say her permanent residence had been approved. The woman wept with joy and gratitude. And she remembers vividly her experience of sitting in a waiting room watching the faces of people who walk into their citizenship interviews with anxious expressions and come out with smiles.

It’s these kind of moments an immigration lawyer lives for and cherishes. It’s also the moments that spur her on in her work and in the prayer that she lifts up for our nation - “Lord, that we may see.” Through earnest endeavor, humble hearts, authentic relationships, and honest, thoughtful conversation, Danielle trusts that we can and will be given such sight.


This article is a part of a March 2017 snapshot of the John Jay Institute's impact on law. Read more articles from the collection here.