A Conversation with Adrienne Kittos

Adrienne speaks with us about her career supporting immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers

By: Alyssa Curran

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Adrienne Kittos is the Legal Director for Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) and received her J.D. from Vanderbilt University Law School. She has worked on behalf of clients at the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Immigrant Legal Clinic and Rose Immigration Law Firm in Nashville, Tennessee.

JFON provides affordable, immigration legal services to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

From the travel ban to The Dream Act to the DACA program, immigration reform is top-of-mind for many politicians, constituents and non-citizens, alike. I met with JFON Legal Director, Adrienne Kittos, to discuss issues that immigrants and refugees are facing here in Middle Tennessee, important legislation to keep tabs on, and ways we can help.

It’s clear that immigration reform is an important issue for many people in America. With many new ideas being discussed, what policies should we focus our attention on?

A lot of issues are being considered around immigration in Congress. One of the big areas of concern is the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. When that program ended in September, there’s been a lot of talk about that population: what’s going to happen to those young people who have had DACA, but now don’t have a way forward to get permanent residency (a green card) or U.S. citizenship?

There’s buzz around the possibility of a clean Dream Act. A clean Dream Act would be instituted without stipulations like the border wall add-ons or stricter limits and measures that would affect non-DACA immigration populations in U.S. A clean Dream Act is certainly a best-case scenario.

There’s also talk of a complete overhaul of the immigration system. This new system could be merit-based, where non-citizens would be awarded points for their education level, language fluencies, etc. There are dangers associated with this sweeping change. One potential negative impact would be that permanent residents and citizens would no longer be able to reunite with family members outside of the U.S. Right now, adult citizens may have the ability to bring a sibling or parent into the U.S., but under some new proposals, that would no longer be available.

Tell me about clients JFON serves and some issues facing immigrants and refugees in Middle Tennessee. 

At JFON, we provide low-cost immigration legal services, educate others about immigration to the U.S., and advocate for the rights and dignity of immigrants in refugees.

Right now, we’re in a unique period-of-time and we’re working with a lot of DACA recipients who wish to renew that grant. That renewal is available because of pending litigation allowing more DACA renewals. It is possible that this ability to renew will only be available for a limited time, and we can’t be sure for how long.

We continue to see U-visa cases. The U visa is a nonimmigrant visa which is set aside for victims of certain serious crimes who have suffered substantial mental or physical abuse. These cases are oftentimes associated with domestic abuse.

We do some work with the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This allows certain spouses, children, and parents of abusive U.S. citizens and permanent residents to file a petition for themselves, without the abuser's cooperation. This allows victims to seek both safety and independence from their abuser, who is not notified about the filing.

We’re also starting to do some asylum work. Asylum is available to someone who is facing persecution on race, religion, political opinion, national origin or membership in a social group. These might be people who are facing imprisonment because of the religion they choose to practice or whose ethnic group may be targeted for threats.

We also have a handful of family-based cases and green card renewals.  

Can you speak to the intersection between feminism and immigration? How are policies harming women in disproportionate ways? 

A lot of the clients we work with are survivors of domestic violence and the majority of those clients are women. Women may be more vulnerable to some of those more serious crimes that are prioritized within the immigration system. Within other parts of the system (family or employment-based) there are sometimes income requirements that privilege work outside the home, or a certain level of income, which can put women at a disadvantage.

How would you respond to someone who is more reluctant to support immigrant and refugee rights?

I think that there are real issues that underlie some of the concerns people have about our immigration system.  That being said, a lot of opinions that have born out of this issue are born out of a lack of knowledge about why people are coming to our country.

A question we hear a lot is, “Why don’t people just get in line?” Unfortunately, for many people, there’s not a line to get into. There’s not an ability for a person to come to the U.S. just because they want to “work hard and better their family.” There’s not a visa for that.

What the media doesn’t do a very good job of is personalizing stories – what immigrants and refugees are facing, what they’ve been through and what they’ll encounter as they navigate the immigration system. It’s easy to dismiss a faceless number without taking into account each story.

Immigrants and refugees are our neighbors and friends -- people with hopes and dreams just like the folks we go to school and work with.

How can we advocate for immigration reform and better serve refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants locally? 

Support and volunteer with any number of local organizations including JFON, Conexion Americas, and Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. One thing that’s neat about JFON model is that we seek to give volunteers an opportunity to sit down and have a meaningful conversation with an immigrant neighbor. That can be really transformative for someone who wouldn’t have this interaction in their day-to-day life. It’s important to connect with others in that way as we’re contemplating these big issues facing our country.