Church in Villanova University, Pennsylvania, USA. Photo: Getty Images.
Church in Villanova University, Pennsylvania, USA. Photo: Getty Images.

Filling the gap in immigration legal services through education

A new program at Villanova looks to train individuals to become fully or partially-accredited legal representatives for immigrants.


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In light of Philadelphia’s decision to provide immediate funding for attorneys to represent undocumented immigrants facing deportation, it’s important to understand the scope of the problem facing immigrants looking for proper legal services. The $200,000 funding is long overdue and necessary, but it is just part of the solution.  

Another avenue to change the broken system is through education. And that’s just what Villanova law professor Michele Pistone is trying to do with her new pilot program called the Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates — VIISTA for short.

The pilot, which just finished its first of three modules at the end of June, is an online preparatory course for individuals looking to become full or partially-accredited legal representatives for immigrants. 

VIISTA got its first grant in 2016, but Pistone has thought about how to fix flaws in the U.S.’s immigration system for her entire 20 year career in the field. 

The Importance of Representation

A University of Pennsylvania study from 2015, which analyzed the access to legal counsel for immigrants nationwide between 2007 and 2012 found that 86% of immigrants detained and 63% never detained appeared in immigration court without legal representation. 

Of those not represented, only 2% detained had a successful outcome in their cases and 17% never detained succeeded.  

“Having an advocate is crucial to saving families,” said Pistone.

But these words ring especially true in the age of caging children and separating immigrant families at the border. But in the tragedy, Pistone noticed a trend that spawned the idea for VIISTA.

In the current crush for immigration legal services, she noticed more and more immigrants using accredited legal representatives in place of the more expensive or overwhelmed immigration attorneys.

Accredited Representative?

Through law, the U.S. Department of Justice has established certifications for ‘Accredited Representatives’ that can fill in for some or all of the work done by the overwhelmed immigrant attorneys. They can provide legal counsel, fill out and submit proper documentation and even litigate in United States Citizenship and Immigration court depending on their level of accreditation.

According to the May 2019 roster kept by the DOJ, there are approximately 2,000 accredited representatives in the U.S. — all involved within the network of nonprofits that serve immigrant communities across the country. 

Of that 2,000, there are about 300 fully accredited reps — meaning they can litigate on behalf of immigrant clients in USCIS court. The other 1,700 are partially accredited representatives, meaning they can only offer clients legal counsel and submit paperwork to the government.

Even with the numbers, there still aren’t enough accredited reps to fill the current need.

Creating New Career Paths

With VIISTA, Pistone is trying to fill the gap in service. But in doing so, she is also changing the entire industry by offering more career paths. 

In the same way Duke University’s physician’s assistant program created the physician’s assistant profession, VIISTA looks to do the same for the accredited legal representative.

“How can we train new services within law industry?” She asked.

Unlike law school, which usually takes three years to complete, VIISTA is a one-year program. Upon completion, students are given a certificate from Villanova, which qualifies them to apply to take the partial or full accreditation tests. 

Jane Brady, one of the 16 students taking part in the pilot, said she felt paralyzed after the 2016 election. One of her frustrations as a long-time nonprofit employee for the Center For Children’s Advocacy was the inability involve people in the aid work beyond funding it. 

VIISTA, she says “gives people who aren’t attorneys a chance to be part of the solution.”

“There are people who want to help,” said Brady, “and with proper training we can increase the amount of people who are giving immigrants a voice,” said Brady.

Online, but Involved

Another plus for VIISTA is its online format. For Pistone, it was crucial for the program to be digital so it could reach individuals outside of cities, where a majority of the detention centers are located and detainees have more trouble finding representation.

“It provides an opportunity to ramp-up services in very limited areas,” said Pistone.

Brady was unsure of the online format before starting the program, but said the program’s interactivity was a surprise and major plus.

“It’s not just building online, but getting out in the field pretty quickly and getting familiar with the immigrant ecosystem,” she said.   

The curriculum is split into three modules and was developed holistically with inputs from community stakeholders, law professionals and 20 other Villanova faculty members.

“Each one brought a unique perspective,” said Pistone.

Module one offered overall context to immigration legal services in the U.S. In addition to consuming targeted readings, videos, and podcasts, participants also conducted five interviews throughout the semester. 

Each conversation built upon another, starting with an interview with someone about their culture and concluding with a talk with an immigrant about their journey to the U.S. participants filmed their interviews and then shared them with other classmates to get their feedback.

The process built the students’ interview skills and cultural sensitivity — something key to building trust with clients.  

An Important Revelation

In her interview with an immigrant from Costa Rica, Brady was shocked to learn of his positive immigration experience. 

“I think I needed to hear that in that moment,” she said. “Immigration doesn’t have to be a horrible thing.”

The realization put into context the current negative rhetoric surrounding immigration.

“There was a time we didn’t lock people up in cages. They came to this country for opportunity and we embraced it,” said Brady. 

She thinks VIISTA can be part of correcting the narrative nationwide.

“I honestly believe that this is a program that can make a difference on the macro level,” said Brady.

The pilot program resumes in the Fall for module two and three in the Spring of 2020. The next parts will delve into the nuts and bolts of the law surrounding immigration legal services. 

VIISTA is set to launch officially in the Fall of 2020.


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