Obama Hosts Immigration Town Hall


Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON) attorney Adrienne Kittos discusses her experience at a town hall on immigration hosted by President Barack Obama

by Laura Sonnenmark

When President Obama took the microphone at Casa Azafrán, a community center in Nashville, Tenn., to promote his Executive Order on Immigration, Adrienne Kittos, an attorney for Tennessee Justice For Our Neighbors (TNJFON), was there to witness the historic event.

“It was such a wonderful experience to be there,” Kittos enthused, “surrounded by tireless advocates for immigration reform, including some who have been working toward greater equality in Nashville for decades.”

President Barack Obama answers questions during a town hall on immigration at Casa Azafran community center in Nashville, Tenn., Dec. 9, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

TNJFON is one of several non-profits housed at Casa Azafrán to serve the city’s burgeoning immigrant community. It is the only one that offers free and low-cost legal aid to immigrants and refugees.

Kittos 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.

Odd Venue

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% of the city’s total population — more than double from a decade ago.

In 2014 alone, TNJFON 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.

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.

Change of Heart

A change of heart, President Obama 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 we are.

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. “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 Nov. 20th.”

Ugly sentiments

Leaving Casa Azafrán, audience members were confronted by the sight of several protesters 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 protesters, 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.

JFON clinic volunteers set appointments, welcome clients, conduct intake interviews with new clients, and much more. Staff attorneys meet with clients in confidential sessions and provide advice about their case. Many cases are then taken on for full representation by the JFON attorney. Staff and volunteers at JFON sites also advocate for just immigration reform and educate the community about immigration issues and laws. JFON work, which is volunteer-intensive, emphasizes providing compassion and hospitality to immigrant neighbors.

Laura Sonnenmark is Communication & Office Manager at the National Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON) office in Springfield, Va. The office supports 16 JFON sites throughout the country, which collectively employ more than 15 immigration attorneys. These sites operate in 14 states and Washington, D.C., and include approximately 40 clinics that operate out of United Methodist churches. This article is reprinted from the January National Justice For Our Neighbors Update. It originally appeared under the title “President Obama comes to Nashville — and Tennessee JFON is there!”

GCORR is building the capacity of The United Methodist Church to be contextually relevant and to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people as we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.