Meet VIISTA: The Program Training Non-Lawyers to Represent Migrants in Court

Six out of every 10 migrants appear in immigration court without a lawyer, yet are 12 times more likely to be granted relief when they have representation. Villanova law professor Michele Pistone is meeting this need—and revolutionizing the immigration legal system—with her program that trains non-lawyers to represent migrants in court.

Professor Michele Pistone, founder of VIISTA, at a meeting in front of posters about the program's design.
Professor Michele Pistone, founder of VIISTA, at a meeting in front of posters about the program’s design. (Courtesy)

“How old are you?” asked the immigration court judge of the migrant sitting across from her. “Do you speak Spanish?”  

At age 2, Fernanda Jacqueline Davila was the youngest migrant to appear in federal immigration court No. 14. She sat in front of the judge with no lawyer or legal advocate, the only familiar face in the room being a contracted caseworker from the detention center.

Davila’s experience is not unique. Many children and adult migrants face a confusing legal system alone, especially as migration flows have shifted to include more children and women over the decades. Unlike the justice system for citizens in the United States, migrants are not provided with legal representation if they cannot afford their own. In fact, six out of every 10 migrants who appear in immigration court—including children—do so without a lawyer. 

“Every time I went into immigration court, I was so frustrated because I saw how many people didn’t have a lawyer, including children,” said Michele Pistone, a law professor at Villanova University. “When you see that enough times you start thinking, okay, the problem is that the system is broken, and we need to come up with a better solution,” she said. And Pistone did exactly that. 

Pistone designed and founded an entirely online educational program called Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA). The program is designed to meet the demand for immigrant representatives by taking advantage of a long-standing facet of immigration law that allows non-lawyers approved by the Department of Justice (DOJ) to represent migrants in immigration court. Called “accredited representatives,” these non-lawyers work at DOJ recognized organizations—such as faith-based or immigrant advocacy groups—who are permitted to provide low-cost legal representation to migrants under federal regulations.

VIISTA offers in-depth, interdisciplinary training to equip students with the legal and cultural knowledge to effectively represent migrants. The remote, asynchronous structure of the courses makes the program accessible anywhere and to anyone, with a diverse cohort of students spanning all stages of life and geographic regions. 

How VIISTA Works

The program is composed of three 14-week modules—each divided into two seven-week sessions—and every module builds off of the content of the previous one. After the first module, students receive a certificate in immigrant accompaniment, which includes tasks such as helping register children for school, obtaining a driver’s license, opening a bank account or attending a legal proceeding. 

The second module focuses on the legal knowledge needed to become a partially accredited representative, a status that allows people to provide legal services for migrants before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Partially accredited representatives assist with applications for naturalization, citizenship, work authorization and affirmative asylum cases.

The third module focuses on trial advocacy, and qualifies students to become fully accredited representatives. VIISTA helps develop skills such as “how to speak convincingly, how to write a persuasive argument, how to craft a direct examination that’s going to have an impact with that judge,” explained Cyndy Levy, a retired therapist and student of VIISTA preparing to become a fully accredited representative.

Students are taught with a hands-on, interdisciplinary approach that moves beyond technical and legal skill-sets to developing a holistic understanding of the migrant experience. According to Pistone, a full understanding of the immigration system involves a balance of legal studies, self awareness, cultural studies and history. 

Although the program is remote, the course structure is engaging and students complete a variety of hands-on assignments. VIISTA students are expected to participate in “interviewing immigration lawyers, interviewing immigrants, using interpreters recording what we’re doing, uploading it, commenting on everybody else’s—it is so much more intense than I expected,” said Levy. 

A sign is held above the heads of protestors reading "No hate! No fear! Immigrants are welcome here!" with an American flag below. VIISTA, working to meet the need for migrant legal representation, has a promising future in the fight for migrant rights.
Rally at the Supreme Court for refugees and immigrants on January 30, 2017. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

Making An Impact 

Immigrants are 12 times more likely to receive relief when they are represented in court. However, despite the growing need for migrant representation, there are less than 2,000 accredited representatives nationwide. Of this number, only 300 are fully accredited and able to represent migrants in immigration court, where the need for support is greatest. 

VIISTA is already seeing impressive results in tackling this issue, with 125 certificates issued in the first year of the program alone. Even before full accreditation, VIISTA’s design allows for students to assist with paperwork, program registration, accompaniment, and other tasks as they progress through modules and become certified in more capacities.

Mary Ann McLean, a VIISTA student on the path towards full accreditation, described an experience assisting a woman and her four young children making their way to the U.S. to escape a dangerous home life. “All they’re trying to do is feed their families and stay safe. And the system is not set up to do that, or to offer them access to the law,” she said. 

VIISTA emerges as a necessary addition to a legal ecosystem that is overwhelmed and under-supported. Levy believes that legislators need to “commit to making at least an understandable—if not just—an understandable, comprehensible system for how we deal with immigration issues. What we have now is chaotic and impossible for anyone to find their way through, and it works to the detriment of everybody who gets involved in it.”

Isabella Lajara, another student of VIISTA and recent graduate of Columbia University, told Ms. the backlog of open immigration cases in the U.S. spans around 1.3 million. “There’s so many people whose stories are waiting to be heard, who are waiting for this chance for a better life for themselves and for their families,” she said. Lajara described a bureaucratic system that “re-traumatizes people, especially if they’re coming for situations of asylum—having to retell your story over and over and then having documents expire, because the next court date is two years from now.”

Professor Michele Pistone sitting at her desk on her laptop adorned with #RefugeesWelcome stickers. Her program VIISTA is entirely online and asynchronous, meaning that students can tune in virtually from anywhere in the country.
Professor Michele Pistone, sitting at her desk in front of an American flag, on her laptop adorned with #RefugeesWelcome stickers. (Courtesy)

Democratizing the Law

Beyond providing legal relief, Pistone and her students see the opportunity for VIISTA to revolutionize the legal field. VIISTA’s interjection into the immigration system counters the inaccessibility maintained by limiting legal education within the walls of elite institutions. 

“I became very, very interested in teaching and how students learn best, and thinking about how to use online technologies to scale education, make it available to more people, democratize the law,” said Pistone. “I see a future in which everyone who has a civil legal matter has an advocate … we can train, educate and prepare paraprofessionals and add them into the legal services ecosystem—akin to nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants in the health care industry—where it’s not just lawyers, but it’s several layers of paraprofessionals who work in this field.” 

Pistone also warns that the addition of accredited representatives as an esteemed and customary aspect of the legal system will not be easy. She explained how difficult it is to get people to “start thinking that just because we’ve done something in the past in a particular way, doesn’t necessarily mean we have to do that in the future.” 

Get Involved With VIISTA

VIISTA enrollment is ongoing, with start dates in August, January and May. For more information, visit VIISTA’s website or attend a virtual information session. If interested, anyone is able to apply online through the program’s website.

“It brings purpose and meaning for you to be able to become part of the solution, and actually use your privilege to help someone else,” said Pistone. “There’s no greater gift than that.”

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Lily Sendroff is an editorial fellow at Ms. and a rising senior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She majors in the study of women and gender and government, with a concentrative subfield in comparative politics. Her work typically focuses on feminist economics, transnational feminism, and policy analysis.