The Art of Immigration Law


It’s Friday the evening of St. Patrick’s Day and by 7 o’clock the Dakota Jazz Club in downtown Minneapolis is already jammed with patrons.

Tonight’s draw is jazz pianist and band leader Nachito Herrara. Having arrived in the Twin Cities only in 1998 unable to speak more than a few words of English, the Cuban-born Herrara has acquired an enthusiastic following with a high-energy mixture of pyrotechnic keyboard riffs and dazzling technical proficiency.

Sitting at a table on the mezzanine level, Dakota owner Lowell Pickett looks down at the stage where Herrara, with great flourish, introduces each member of Nachito Herrara and Friends, a 12-piece combo assembled just for this weekend from some of the area’s best musicians and percussionists. Despite the standing-room-only crowd, Pickett, a beloved figure in the world of jazz, is edgy, glancing nervously toward the sound engineer and then back at the stage where Herrara has just announced the theme of tonight’s show: a tribute to the 1970s funk group Earth, Wind & Fire.

Earth, Wind & Fire is a far cry from jazz. How would the Dakota’s fans react?

As it turns out, Pickett has no reason to worry. Within moments it’s clear that Earth, Wind & Fire is merely a point of departure for a two-and-a-half-hour set of hot, Latin-infused jazz, punctuated by lengthy solos and dueling duets. About a half-hour into the set, the music pauses long enough for Herrara to point up toward Pickett and announce his love and gratitude to the club owner. Then he points at another figure seated at Pickett’s table. “And I want to thank Laura Danielson,” Herrara says. “She’s a great, great lawyer and, now you know, my really good friend.”

In the reflected glow of the stage lights, Danielson (J.D. ’89) smiles but shakes her head slightly in mild self-deprecation as if to say, “Oh, I don’t deserve this sort of recognition.”

Her clients and colleagues disagree.

“I’ve always had artists and entertainers in my life as friends and family members,” Danielson says. “From the first I wanted to combine my interests in the law and foreign cultures in my work.” Danielson, who helped Herrera obtain a coveted 01 visa—reserved for artists of extraordinary or unique talent—is an immigration lawyer who has made a subspecialty of representing artists and other foreign-born clients.

Consistently ranked one of the top 100 lawyers in Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Law School graduate is a partner in the prestigious Minneapolis-based Fredrikson & Byron law firm, where she heads the immigration department. “We do full service immigration law, including obtaining visas for corporations bringing in people from overseas,” Danielson explains. “My specialty—though it is hardly all I do—is getting visas for artists and writers. They can be short- or long-term, so-called green cards, but even artists here on temporary visas require work permits if they are getting paid for a performance or some other kind of work.”

Danielson has for the past several years also received an AV ranking—the highest possible and showing that she has reached the height of professional excellence—from the national law trade journal _Martindale-Hubbell_. Eight to 10 times a year she travels to Fredrikson’s London offices, where her expertise in immigration law and marketing enables the firm to compete against much larger firms on the East and West coasts. When, as planned, Fredrikson opens an office in China’s boomtown of Shanghai, she will add East Asia to her globetrotting portfolio. Meanwhile, she also finds time to co-teach a once-a-year course in immigration law at the University along with Regents Professor David Weissbrodt and attorney Sam Myers, past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“Laura has built her own niche,” says fellow attorney Mark Hunter, who is also a longtime friend of Danielson’s and former classmate at Carleton College. “At the same time, she is a genuinely decent, caring person, a great example of how professionalism is ultimately personal. She’s the kind of person you want working for you.”

“She was the first lawyer we had and it was a very lucky choice,” says Meena Natarajan, the executive and literary director of Minneapolis-based Pangea Theatre, which she co-founded a decade ago with her husband, Dipanker Mukherjee. When the couple decided to stay in Minnesota at the end of Mukherjee’s appointment as a visiting director at the Guthrie Theater, a friend recommended contacting Danielson. In addition to helping the couple acquire visas and then permanent residency—green cards—Danielson provided reassurance that helped the two artists get through a very anxious time in any immigrant’s life.

“She really brings a degree of humanity to her work,” Natarajan says. “She really cares about the people she represents. There is an extraordinary amount of worry about this kind of thing—it literally dominated our lives for a couple of years. She had this way of reassuring us that everything would be OK in a way that gave us the hope we needed to keep on.” One indication of Danielson’s willingness to go the extra mile: As with several artist clients, she adjusted her fees and repayment schedule to make it possible for the couple to afford her services. In the case of other artists, she has even been willing to exchange her services for works of art. And as with many of her former clients, she has gone on to form a personal friendship with Natarajan and Mukherjee, even serving on Pangea’s board for a period of time.

“Laura is a very calming individual,” says Jonathan Ferguson, a theater director and educator from England who specializes in the Renaissance form of theater known as commedia d’elle arte and has been living in the Twin Cities since last June. “She’s very laidback and helps you realize everything is going to be OK.

There’s a lot of anxiety associated with [applying for an 01 visa] and she sort of walked me through it. At the same time, she clearly understands the kind of theater that I do, and so I knew she would be able to make a very strong case [with the immigration authorities] that what I am doing is out of the ordinary.”

Even before 9/11, immigration law was never the easiest or the most lucrative kind of practice, and by the mid-1990s, tough new statutes and regulations began to make it even more difficult for foreigners to get work visas or permanent residency status. In the wake of 9/11, as Mark Hunter observes, immigration law has turned into a kind human rights advocacy.

A streak of activism, of wanting to do good and not just do well, as well as an interest in other cultures and international travel, have strong roots in Danielson’s upbringing. “I grew up in a pretty liberal household,” she says, adding, “My dad’s dad worked on the railroad and was a Socialist.”

She was born in Elgin, Illinois. Her father, David, is a retired Lutheran minister and her mother, Joan, was an elementary school teacher who founded the first U.S. school-based infant and toddler care for the children of high school students. For much of her childhood, the family lived in DeKalb, Illinois, where her father was a campus minister at DeKalb University.

“The very first words she spoke were not ‘mama’ or ‘papa,’ ” David Danielson recalls. “They were ‘by myself.’ She never wanted help. She always wanted to do things for herself.”

In the late ’60s, her father saw an ad in a mission publication for a job working with academic communities in Malaysia. Though he had no idea what that kind of work would entail—and only a hazy sense of Malaysia’s location—he applied for the position.

Because of political turmoil, the job in Malaysia did not pan out and after a year in Taiwan to learn Chinese, Danielson’s father was transferred to a working class district of Singapore. There he was given the job of community organizing, using the model pioneered by American activist Saul Alinsky. Such activity was illegal in Singapore, however, and after only two years the family returned to the United States. But in the meantime, Laura Danielson had acquired familiarity with Chinese language and culture and the beginning of a lifetime of interest in other cultures and peoples.

Back in the United States, she took a degree in Chinese history and language at Carleton but also pursued artistic interests. But instead of pursuing a career in the arts—or even going off to see the world—Danielson settled down in Northfield, earning a teaching certificate from Mankato State, marrying Northfield lawyer David Hvistendahl, and going on to serve as office manager for his law practice while raising the couple’s two children, Mara and Jacob. The marriage ended in 1985, but her experience managing her husband’s firm gave her the confidence that she herself could succeed in taking a law degree despite being a single mother. In 1986, after receiving a high score on her LSAT, she was accepted at the University of Minnesota Law School. Her husband paid her tuition as a lump sum settlement.

“I had always wanted to go to law school,” Danielson explains. “I had always had it in my mind that I would combine international law with my interest and knowledge of Chinese history, language, and culture.”

“She had a real strength of character that made her believe in her ability to do what she wanted,” recalls Lowell Pickett, who came to know Danielson through her ex-husband, a college classmate at St. Olaf. “She came to the Twin Cities with two kids, and no real way of supporting herself, but determined to succeed.” At the same time, he says, “she always had this sense of compassion. A lot of people in her circumstance might enroll in a professional school and ask ‘How much money can I make?’ With her, it seemed more a question of, ‘How can I provide a secure career for myself and my children and utilize my intelligence and education in ways that help others?’ “

“She is very generous, always eager to help, financially, mentally, physically,” says Honyu Lang, an actuarial consultant with St. Paul Travelers. Lang met Danielson in Northfield when Lang was a student at St. Olaf and Danielson came to her for tutoring in Chinese. Both ended up as single mothers and when Danielson moved to the Twin Cities she invited Lang to share her house with her rent-free. At the time, Lang had a student visa but no work permit.

“She shared everything with me,” Lang recalls. “She gave me money and brought presents for me to give to my son. Even now, if she has a friend who doesn’t have a place to stay, she will invite them in. She has a very big heart.”

At the University, Danielson’s abilities and legal experience brought her to the attention of Regents Professor David Wiessbrodt, who had her in a first-year tort class and later in a course on immigration law. He was impressed enough to select her to serve as the legal internal adviser at the University’s International Student and Scholar Services program.

“I usually only select a student for that position once every two years,” Weissbrodt explains. “But she was so good that I violated the normal routine and hired her in her second year [of law school] for a single year.”

Upon graduation, Danielson continued to set her own course, setting up her own practice specializing in entertainment and immigration law in space she shared above the New French Café in downtown Minneapolis with John Rote, an attorney she’d met through Pickett.

“I went into practice myself because there were no firms in the Twin Cities that would embrace what I wanted to do,” she explains. “I had to stay here because of my kids. There were small boutique firms where I could have done immigration law, but no openings at large firms—and they would have placed me wherever they wanted. But I was too old for that. It was really hard. I was living on nothing.”

Things were lean at first. Danielson took out a loan to build out her share of the office and got an old desk and computer from a lawyer friend whom she paid back by clerking for him. Rote referred entertainment clients to her and Weissbrodt sent immigrant cases her way, but it wasn’t enough to cover expenses. She maxed out her credit cards and saved money by parking in a space she shared with Pickett. Her mother went back to work in order to help purchase a small house for her; Danielson paid her back with monthly rent checks.

A few months later, she and her second husband, sculptor Jim Larson—the couple divorced after a couple of years of marriage—bought a small house in Minnetonka and set about renovating and expanding it, but the wolf was never far from the door. Her first month in business she billed $120, doubled that the next month, and slowly but steadily increased her income. Still, it took five years before she was earning what she had at her ex-husband’s law firm. “Many nights I lay awake wondering if I had made the worst mistake of my life [going into private practice],” she recalls. “But it was what I wanted to do, and you can’t go back.”

Danielson continued in her own practice for the next several years. Then she formed a small partnership, moved on to a firm that specializes in intellectual property law, decided she had to narrow her focus to immigration law with a subspecialty in representing artists and entertainers, took herself and her staff to another firm, and finally joined Fredrikson & Byron. As head of the firm’s newly created immigration law department, she manages a staff of three lawyers and five paralegals.

Danielson happened to be in Tokyo attending an international art conference with Julie Voight, the performing arts curator at Walker Art Center, when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked five years ago. The implications of the attacks on her work were not lost on her. “We just sat on the bed and watched in shock,” she recalls. “I realized that this was going to change the face of everything.”

She returned to find many of her Muslim clients facing FBI interrogations, seizure of property, and other difficulties. One of the worst cases involved a Somali client who operated a money-wiring service. Shortly after 9/11, FBI agents raided the owner’s house, ransacking personal belongings, seizing assets and records, and trashing the premises. The owner was never charged with anything but it took more than two years to recover his assets and in the meantime, he was effectively put out of business. In another case, a Muslim imam had to wait five years before his green card was approved by immigration services, during which time he could not leave the United States to see his family for fear that he would not be allowed back in.

“There was no reason for the five year gap,” Danielson argues. “But he was effectively stuck here. Many people wouldn’t put up with that. They would simply leave—and many have.”

In the wake of the 2001 attacks and the epidemic of fear that gripped the nation, things got so tense that there were even high-level talks at Fredrikson & Byron over whether the firm wanted to stay in immigration law at all. But, Danielson says, “The firm really stood behind us. It was a very big moment for [Fredrickson & Byron] to decide what we stand for.” Though the firm received advice that doing so might ruin it, a decision was made: Fredrickson & Byron would remain in immigration. “It was a personal crossroads for me. If the decision had gone the other way, I would probably have had to leave.”

Despite the firm’s decision, things have not been easy. The immigration services have developed what Danielson calls “a culture of no,” with a growing backlog of cases awaiting adjudication as more and more resources have been funneled into enforcement—hiring border agents and tracking down immigrants with expired visas rather than processing applications for new immigrants.

“The pendulum for immigration has swung back and forth many times,” Danielson says. “Right now, the combination of fear of terrorists as well as the unwarranted perception that immigrants somehow are costing America money, has caused the pendulum to swing pretty far to one extreme,” even though, as she argues, “We really need immigrants in this country. Economically we really need them, not to mention the ways in which they enrich our culture.”

Still, the culture of no appears firmly in place. Not that this is going to stop people from wanting to come to the United States for economic, political, and artistic reasons.

“Even with all the things that have happened, there are still many people trying to immigrate [to the United States], but the need far outweighs the opportunities,” Danielson says.

“Until they raise the quota on visas,” she continues, “our business will not grow. Right now, there are many, many people we simply have to turn away. We keep their names on a list and maybe someday we’ll be able to help them.”

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