President Obama comes to Nashville—
and Tennessee JFON is there!
When President Obama took the microphone at Casa Azafrán, a Nashville community center, to promote his Executive Order on Immigration, Adrienne Kittos, an attorney for Tennessee Justice For Our Neighbors, was there to witness the historic event.
“It was such a wonderful experience to be there,” Adrienne enthused, “surrounded by tireless advocates for immigration reform, including some who have been working toward greater equality in Nashville for decades.”
TNJFON is one of several non-profits housed at Casa Azafrán to serve the city’s burgeoning immigrant community—and the only one to offer free and low-cost legal aid to immigrants and refugees. Adrienne has been with TNJFON since fall of 2009, but she has been a tenacious defender of the vulnerable and underserved in the immigrant communities of Nashville her entire adult life. In 2012, Adrienne was honored as the New Advocate of the Year by the Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services.
As the president himself acknowledged, Nashville, the home of country music and the Grand Ole Opry, may seem to be an odd venue choice for a discussion of immigration reform. But Nashville is also home to one of the fastest-growing immigrant communities in the United States, accounting for 12 percent of the city’s total population, more than double from a decade ago. In 2014 alone, Tennessee JFON served clients from 24 different countries, including immigrants from Moldova, Nepal, and Greece. In Nashville, the President found an audience eager to listen, and just as eager to question.
Waiting for President Obama to arrive. Photo credit: Shelly Mays/The Tennessean
The president began his speech with a reminder that the United States is a nation of immigrants and that “when people say ‘my ancestors did it the right way,’ it may be without a great deal of understanding of what it currently requires to immigrate ‘the right way,’” recalled Adrienne. “He spoke about the benefits of immigration, including helping to keep the economy vibrant and providing a needed base for Social Security.”
The president’s call for greater civility on both sides of this issue resonated with Adrienne, as he asked for understanding from those who are opposed to relief for undocumented immigrants, as well as a willingness on the part of immigrant advocates to consider the concerns that people may have about changes to the immigration system.
A change of heart, the president said, so often comes about from being “personally acquainted with someone facing the difficulties of living in the United States without lawful immigration status.” He told the audience that he has received “many letters from people who were opposed to immigration reform until they learned that their child’s best friend or a member of their church, is undocumented.”
Anyone who has volunteered at a JFON clinic knows all too well the transformative power of a personal connection with our immigrant neighbors. We hear their stories of sacrifice and hardship, we learn of their intense yearning to live free and with human dignity, and suddenly we realize they aren’t just nameless faces or numbers on a chart—they are people just like us.
The president’s answers to questions from audience members left Adrienne feeling very hopeful for the future. “Overall, my takeaway is that he recognizes that there is still a lot of work to be done,” she said, “and my impression is that he does intend to continue pushing for reform while he is in office, rather than resting on the executive action announced on November 20th.”
Leaving Casa Azafrán, audience members were confronted by the sight of several protestors carrying signs, expressing the usual ugly sentiments, including one with a swastika made of American flags. These were the people the President had spoken of, those who had yet to experience the change of heart.
“They stood in stark contrast to the room I had just left,” said Adrienne, “and served as a reminder that there are still many people who find the idea of increased opportunities for their immigrant neighbors to be threatening.”
The protestors, however, were soon drowned out by supporters, chanting, “Obama! Escucha! Estámos en la lucha!
(Obama! Listen! We are in the fight!)
“There is still a long way to go,” admitted Adrienne, “but the will to continue the fight is evident in Nashville.” She smiled that smile of strength and determination her clients and colleagues know so well. Adrienne Kittos is ready to fight that good fight.
Adrienne Kittos, Legal Director, TN-JFON
A Hotline for our Neighbors in the Heartland
Imagine being an undocumented immigrant in the heartland of America. Perhaps you don’t have a good grasp of our language and customs, or knowledge of our legal system and immigration laws. You need help, but you are terrified of making a misstep which could lead to deportation. You find out that there are several well-established and trustworthy legal aid organizations in your community that help immigrants, but you don’t know which one is right for your case. You start making the rounds: going from office to office, filling out the never-ending forms, meeting with staff, waiting to see if they can help you, and starting all over again when you are told they cannot. You may have to take time off from work, which means a loss of income your family cannot afford. It may even cost you your job.
Essentially acting as a one-stop “triage” for legal aid, trained NILAH paralegals can complete intake screening forms over the phone, provide information, and discuss with potential clients what options are available to them—all in the client's native language, if necessary.
If it is determined that the client can be assisted by a legal aid group, the client is given a direct referral to one of the participating organizations. A consultation with an attorney follows, either in person or via FaceTime. Many of these attorneys are bilingual, although volunteers are also available to provide language translation.
photo credit: www.immigrationserviceoffice.com
The resulting increase in efficiency is a godsend for everyone involved, particularly now when the need for immigrant legal aid is so great and expected to grow greater still.
“The hotline allows us to spend more time on cases where an individual has a possible legal option, instead of advising clients with no such options,” explains Emiliano Lerda, Executive Director of JFON Nebraska. “Client experience with securing low-bono or pro-bono immigration legal representation has also improved in quality.”
Emiliano Lerda, Executive Director, JFON-NE
In the space of one year, JFON-NE received 280 referrals from NILAH. “Conservatively, we estimate that between 15-25 percent of our increase in cases processed is attributable to the hotline,” says Emiliano, noting that, as one of the leaders of its governing task force, JFON-NE is vital to low-income immigrants attempting to access a range of quality services.
The innovation, teamwork and true collaborative spirit displayed by JFON-NE and its partners as they strive to more ably serve our immigrant neighbors represents the very best of our ministry.