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Justice for Migrants: Bridging Immigrant Advocates & Champions for Justice Through Education

We train immigrant advocates to assist and accompany migrants through VIISTA, a comprehensive legal education.

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What do you do with these problems?

An unrepresented 6 year old Spanish-speaking Honduran girl who is expected to explain – by herself - to an immigration judge why she fled her home country and can’t safely return.

A single mother who is afraid to apply for needed public benefits for her US citizen children because she has heard that it may jeopardize her ability to gain US citizenship.

Or the many immigrant families that are deterred from even applying for immigration benefits by high application fees because they don’t realize that fee waivers may be available.

There simply are not enough lawyers– and there will never be enough lawyers – to help all the immigrants that need help.

The project we are working on is designed to address these problems – to provide a way to help.  VIISTA is an online certificate program designed to train all the passionate immigrant allies around the country who want to help immigrants. The curriculum is holistic – we teach about immigration from various perspectives and include all the topics needed to become effective immigrant advocates – such as interviewing, how to work with an interpreter, how to work with migrant children, factors that push people to migrate, providing trauma-informed care, trial advocacy  – and, of course, immigration law.  I am teaching that law in the context of what graduates will do on the job.  We designed the VIISTA 5-stage advocacy process. For many weeks, students learn the law as they actively build persuasive legal cases.  

For 22 years, I have been teaching law students to represent immigrants. For about half that time, I have been researching online education.  Now, I am directing my teaching to a new cohort of students.  I know the specific tasks that advocates need to know.  And I know how to teach it for transfer.  And I am working with a team of experts -- lawyers, retired judges, immigrant serving organizations -- so that what the students learn aligns with the activities that graduates will do on the job. 

And, I am particularly excited about it because the students in the pilot have given us good feedback – which we are using now to iterate and improve the program.  Overall, they are really enjoying VIISTA so far.

Now, with the resources we currently have, once the students get accredited, they may be able to help a few hundred immigrants each year.

But, with additional resources, we can scale this program to educate many, many more new students each semester.

My goal is to graduate 10,000 Immigrant Advocates over the next 10 years. And, it is realistic -- with additional funding.  Then, if every one of those new immigrant advocate helped just 1 immigrant family each month, they would help 660,000 immigrant families over 10 years.

And, the impact could be even greater than that because this program could be a model for using non-lawyers to provide legal services in other areas of law as well, like housing, and veteran’s affairs. Just like the medical field provided space for nurse practitioners and physicians assistants. Those career paths did not exist until about 50 years ago.  They were developed – by universities - in response to a real need in the community for medical assistance.  Duke University started the first physician’s assistance program in 1965 and the University of Colorado started to train nurse practitioners the same year.  Now, there are more than 270,000 nurse practitioners and we could not envision a health care system functioning without them.  

We have the same need in the legal field.  Access to justice is a problem in many areas of law, so this could go beyond immigration.  

But, immigration is my field.  So, that’s where I started.  And, we are fortunate because we already a legal framework establishing authority in place now.  Under current regulations, non-lawyers can stand with immigrants in proceedings before both the Department of Homeland Security and immigration courts.  

And we are also fortunate, because there are thousands for passionate immigrant allies today eager to help.  

With online education we can reach all the immigrant allies - far and wide – in rural communities, suburbs, and cities around the country with the energy and passion to help. 

We hope you will help us achieve this vision.  Together, we have the ability to create lasting change.  

What problem does the idea help to solve and how does your solution work? (2,000 characters maximum)

PROBLEM: Unlike criminal proceedings in which defendants have constitutional rights to representation, in the US, migrants are not entitled to court appointed lawyers. Six out of 10 migrants confront the immigration system without a lawyer, even children. The consequences are substantial: the Vera Institute found that migrants are 12 times more likely to obtain available relief when they have an advocate. Lack of advocacy disrupts in life-altering ways. With each deportation order, families are separated, employers lose employees, and communities lose valued neighbors and friends. The migrant-serving community knows we need more advocates. Most look to lawyers for the solution. However, they are out of reach for poor migrants. The problem requires an innovative approach. VIISTA represents a bold new solution. SOLUTION: VIISTA (Villanova University Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates) will be the first university-based online certificate program to train non-lawyers. Designed by an interdisciplinary team of leading faculty, lawyers, and NGOs, VIISTA will revolutionize education about the law. We are educating a category of legal advocates (akin to physician’s assistants in health care) who, under existing regulations, graduates will be eligible to apply to become Department of Justice “accredited representatives,” non-lawyers authorized to provide low-cost representation. VIISTA’s online, modular design makes it scalable and affordable.

Geography of focus (500 characters)

VIISTA is an online educational program so students from across the US can enroll. The curriculum is interdisciplinary. It will teach migration and how to work effectively with migrants in a holistic way. The curriculum is modular and designed to be repackaged for several different audiences. The pilot curriculum will start with a focus on US immigration law. The legal aspects of the curriculum can later to adopted to educate community legal workers around the world about immigration.

Building Bridges: What bridge does your idea build between people on the move and neighbors towards a shared future of stability and promise? (500 characters)

Many people in communities across the US and around the world are passionate about helping migrants, but lack the knowledge and skills needed to offer support. VIISTA offers a scalable way to rapidly expand the capacity of immigrant communities to advocate and organize for change. Many migrant communities are unaware of their legal rights. Immigrant advocates will gain the knowledge needed to empower migrant communities to assert their rights.

What human need is your idea solving for? (1,000 characters)

Freedom from persecution is a fundamental human right. Many migrants flee conditions of violence. Immigrants' joy, hope, and dignity is restored when they have access to justice, in three ways, by (1) educating immigrant communities about immigration law and policy builds legal capacity and restores hope and dignity to migrants who otherwise confront the immigration system uneducated about heir rights; (2) expanding pipeline of qualified immigrant advocates to provide access to justice to migrants families who otherwise would confront the immigration enforcement system without an advocate; and (3) promoting the expansion of a new employment category within the legal services sector for which immigrants are uniquely qualified, thereby increasing their economic opportunities and civic engagement. The immigrant advocate career path created by VIISTA will be particularly attractive to first generation students and immigrant-origin adults who currently lack a postsecondary credential.

What will be different within the community of focus as a result of implementing your idea? (1,000 characters)

My aim is to launch the VIISTA program in Fall 2020. Now, there are 2000 accredited representatives (AR) in the US. By the end of 2024, I hope to teach and graduate an additional 2000 ARs. Immigrant communities need advocates who understand immigration from a holistic perspective, push and pull factors, cultural sensitivity, trauma-informed care, VIISTA's curriculum is interdisciplinary and holistic. I also plan to use our network to create a list of priority areas in the US with the most need for immigrant advocates and market to recruit students from there. Through that efforts, VIISTA will expand the pipeline for trained advocates in communities with intense need and limited access to lawyers. The curriculum is designed to teach the knowledge and skills needed on the job. Our pilot is providing a lot of feedback and insights into how to integrate the curriculum to respond to student needs. Assignments also get students into the community to gather feedback on local needs.

What is the inspiration behind your idea? (1,000 characters)

Access to justice is one of the biggest challenges that immigrant families face. Having an advocate makes a huge difference in whether an immigrant can remain in the US or is deported and separated from his/her family. As an immigration lawyer, I saw this problem every time I walked into an immigration court. I am driven to address it and believe that through scalable online technologies, together with existing regulations that allow non-lawyers to provide legal services to immigrants, a viable solution is attainable. I envision a future in which every immigrant confronting the immigration system has an advocate.

Describe the dynamics of the community in which the idea is to be implemented. (1,000 characters)

Immigrant advocates are desperately needed throughout the country, now more than ever before. From remote parish jails in Louisiana, to Mississippi (to respond to recent worksite raids), to rural Pennsylvania, in cities, in suburbs and throughout rural America, immigrant families are being disrupted every day and need advocates to help them navigate a complicated, overwhelming bureaucracy. VIISTA's online educational platform is accessible to students nationwide - so that our graduates are equipped to respond to needs in their local communities. Our curriculum is designed with input from community groups across the country so that we teach the knowledge and skills immigrant families and communities need. For ex. recent changes in laws about immigrant access to public benefits are raising fear and uncertainty in immigrant communities. In response to the rule changes, we now plan to add learning activities about public benefits and aim to educate social workers, healthcare workers.

How does your idea leverage and empower community strengths and assets to help create an environment for success? (1,000 characters)

Connection to the community has driven this idea from its inception. I was fortunate to receive seed funding from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, which funded meetings with community stakeholders from across the country and included representatives from potential employers, immigrant advocacy organizations, legal service organizations, lawyers, prospective students, accredited representatives and a retired immigration judge who also served as former Chair of the Board of Immigration Appeals. Together, we generated ideas. The curriculum design process has involved the community at every stage. Indeed, the curriculum is being designed and build in an innovative way: using a team of design faculty, each specializes in a different area and brings unique perspectives. The faculty designers come from law, history, public administration, theology, social work, and cultural studies. The design faculty collectively have more than 200 yrs in immigration experience.

What other partners or stakeholders will work alongside you in implementing the idea, if any? (1,000 characters)

We are blessed with many partners and stakeholders, all of whom are helping to move project forward. Five immigrant serving organizations are partnering in curriculum design and build: Catholic Relief Services Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) Tahirih Justice Center Immigrant Justice Corps HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) PA Experts from Volta Learning are assisting with curriculum design and assessment Professors from various disciplines are helping to build robust, holistic curriculum Professor from National Association of Trial Advocacy and retired immigration judge and Chair of the Board of Immigration Appeals are designing trial advocacy curriculum Retired immigration judges are providing feedback on curriculum Communications students at Cabrini College are working on a communications plan Many immigrant serving organizations offered to help with communications and spreading the word Immigrant Advocates Network Nat'l Partnership for New Americans UNHCR PIRC

What part of the displacement journey is your solution addressing

  • Arriving and settling at a destination community

Tell us how you'd describe the type of innovation you are proposing

  • Technology-enabled: Existing approach is more effective or scalable with the addition of technology

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Pilot: We have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users. The feasibility of an innovation is tested in a small-scale and real world application (i.e. 3-15% of the target population)

Group or Organization Name

Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA), a certificate program offered by Villanova University, a Catholic and Augustinian University and a 501(c)(3).

Tell us more about your group or organization [or lived experience as a displaced person?] (1000 characters)

Villanova is nationally-recognized top 50 research university. Immigration is central to Villanova’s mission. Villanova’s administration embraces VIISTA and sees it as responding to Pope Francis’s 2018 call on Catholic universities to provide more education, research and service to migrant and refugee communities. Service is central to Villanova’s mission and VIISTA provides a way to use our core business – education – in service to both its students and the immigrants its students will serve. The structure is ideal for VIISTA because: (1) as an institution of higher learning, the University has in-house experience in online education, pedagogy, curriculum development, video production, and student enrollment and management; (2) Villanova branding, as a top 50 national research university, adds name recognition and credibility to VIISTA; (3) Villanova’s network, including 125,000 alumni and many media relations. All of this support to VIISTA bears no monetary cost to the program.

Website URL:

Type of submitter

  • We are a formal part of a University or Research Institution

Organization Headquarters: Country


Organization Headquarters: City / State

Villanova, PA

In preparation for expert feedback: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in these categories? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea. (600 characters)

1. How to build a vibrant, cohesive, online community? Prospective & pilot students want to study in community, share resources, post questions to mentors, and form study groups, and to feel part of a community of like-minded advocates for immigrant justice. 2. How to scale the educational program without losing its teaching effectiveness? The need for advocates is huge, but immigrant allies need education so they can meaningfully help. At scale, VIISTA is a bridge that links two growing needs. 3. How best to evaluate the impact of the program, set goals, develop benchmarks & collect data?

Did you use the resources offered during the Improve Phase (mentorship, expert feedback, community research)? (2000 characters)

Community research with prospective students and the communities they will serve (immigrant clients and employers) helped to refine the program's desirability: 

NEEDS OF PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS: •“I want to understand how the immigration bureaucracy works” •“I hate what I am seeing happen in my country. I can’t just stand by and watch. I need to take action.” •“I feel defeated, teach me so I can be empowered.” •“I am privileged because I have status; help me use that position to find a way to help my community.” •“Teach me so I can be helpful.” •“I want to find a community of like-minded immigrant supporters.” •“I know 5-6 other people who would sign up today, and they each know others.” 

NEEDS OF EMPLOYERS/IMMIGRANT-SERVING ORGANIZATIONS: •“I am overwhelmed. I need someone who can help with our cases.” •“We need someone who understands immigrants to conduct intake interviews in our office.” •“We need a paralegal who can step in and start adding value.” •“I don’t have time to train someone, I need to make a hire of someone who has a general understanding of immigration law.” 

NEEDS OF IMMIGRANT FAMILIES: •“Help me navigate a complicated bureaucracy” •“This is the most important thing I have ever done in my life, please stand by me” •“Help me protect my family.” •“Help me understand my rights.” •“I am afraid and all alone, stand with me.” •“I am confused and intimidated, please help me understand what is happening.”

In what ways would potential BridgeBuilder funds allow you to pursue your idea that other funding opportunities have not? (1000 characters)

BridgeBuilder funding would make a huge, immediate, impact on our ability to scale, nationally and eventually internationally. Consultants ($30K) can help identify edtech platform and tools (including data collection). Funds would help license and/or develop tech ($125-175K) – we aim to negotiate price with tech co or find tech sponsor. We also need help developing robust online community. If funding is available, we would start by hiring a consultant on fostering networked community ($10K), then hiring staff to implement plan ($50K)

Timing is perfect. Curriculum is built, being piloted and improved. Students are eager to enroll. Now, we need to determine how best to scale so we can reach more students and foster and support a community of immigrant advocates for justice.

What aspects or proportion of the overall idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (1000 characters)

BridgeBuilder funds would primarily support the technology side of the project. We want to use appropriate edtech solutions so that we can scale, provide formative assessment and a positive user experience. Good technology will also collect data so that we can continue to improve and iterate based on the feedback on student learning.  

We are creating a new career path - so the edtech solution also needs to build a robust community and facilitate mentoring and other forms of support post-graduation. 

What are the key steps or activities for your idea for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (1000 characters)

Fall 2022, with BridgeBuilder funds, we will:

Scale to create organic online community 

Collaborate w/leading experts in online education, immigration law & practice, trial advocacy, and leading immigration NGOs, to design, build, test and improve online curriculum to ensure it is learned-centered and aligns w/learning competencies & community needs 

Promote to gain visibility 

Create infrastructure to support organic community (students, alumni, community partners) 

Expand pipeline for trained advocates in communities w/intense need & limited access to lawyers

Partner w/colleges; consider expanding to int’l markets

Build alliances w/immigrant serving organizations, faith-based organizations, others, interested in sending students to VIISTA or in employing grads

What will community-level impact look like over the timeframe of your idea? How will you determine whether or not you have achieved that impact? And what outstanding questions do you still have? (1000 characters)

IMPACT: graduate 10,000 Immigrant Advocates by 2030. And, it is realistic, if I can scale through technology. If every one of those new immigrant advocates helped just 2 immigrant families each month, they would help 1.3 million immigrant families by 2030. If I can scale, I would iterate curriculum and expand worldwide (many comments through this challenge indicate there is worldwide need) 

EVALUATION: collect and measure data on learning outcomes, impact of graduates on the job, impact on clients, and impact on the immigrant-community.

STRATEGY: Continue to learn from users, experiment, prototype and improve. Emphasis on understanding immigrant-community needs, iterating based on those needs, gathering feedback on teaching and learning, iterating curriculum to improve teaching and learning. I want VIISTA to achieve maximum impact

OPEN QUESTIONS: how to (1) effectively reach scale? (2) measure outcomes? (3) use edtech to scale and foster learner community

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (1000 characters)

Prof. Michele Pistone is currently the only full-time paid person working on VIISTA.  Pistone is a leading expert in immigration, online legal education & assessment. She oversees curriculum design & development, marketing & communications, and is currently teaching the pilot. 

An additional full-time hire is approved who could provide admin support & manage growing community of people and organizations interested in VIISTA.

Pistone leverages a team of experts to design & develop VIISTA's curriculum. The team is unusually large; including people who bring unique perspectives and backgrounds - law professors, law practitioners, and experts in various disciplines, including legal writing, history, theology, cultural studies and public administration. 

Villanova instructional designers, videographers, and communications & marketing staff support VIISTA.


Lastly, how did you apply new learnings to your idea? (1000 characters)

EXPERT test Slack to create a one-stop shop for sharing information that feels organic. Include feedback loop to take in input & evolve

IMPROVE created Slack account & started testing w/pilot students, will monitor Slack for improvements & ways to evolve

EXPERT think broader than learning outcomes, measure impact on cmt’y-how many imm families are being served by graduates? 

IMPROVE will develop mechanisms to measure these outcomes & monitor that learning relevant to on-the-job needs

MENTOR Create a clear process for evaluation 

IMPROVE will create surveys, seek feedback from cmt’y partners, clients & imm communities & assess learning

USER Blackboard limiting abilities to share content, create study groups & engage

IMPROVE test Slack

Attachments (1)

VIISTA is a Bridge .pdf

We see VIISTA as a bridge that links migrant and refugee families who need help navigating a complex and intimidating immigration bureaucracy with welcoming communities of peace and justice focused champions for change who want to be part of the solution but lack the skills and knowledge to help in meaningful ways. The VIISTA is holistic, interdisciplinary and designed to train immigrant advocates to make an immediate impact on the lives of migrant families in need


Join the conversation:

Photo of Isaac Jumba

Hello Michele Pistone 

Great to read through your final submission. Quite a lot of clarity, and new added information. I'm glad that the feedback from your mentor Kinda Al Massalmeh , your expert, and your users was really helpful during the Improve Phase. The visuals help communicate your idea better.

Do you have a current group of learners taking the course at the moment? Also share how the pilot of using "Slack" is coming along

Photo of Michele Pistone

Hi Isaac Jumba I am delighted that the submission is clear. The Improve Phase was very useful to me. I benefited tremendously from all the feedback, meetings and activities I undertook during the last few weeks.

Yes, we do have a current group of learners taking the program now. The students are part of our pilot. They are pictured in some of the material that I posted in the Challenge and their feedback is also uploaded and reflected in some of my answers and descriptions. I am using their feedback to iterate and improve the curriculum on a regular basis. I am thrilled to have them in the pilot and we are learning a lot from each other.

As to Slate, it looks like the program has many of the technological functions that I am looking to have in a program. I created an account and started to play around with it. I also watched some videos and have done some research on it. One of the students in the pilot uses Slate in her job and recommends it as a good solution to our current technology and communications issues. Based on what I learned, I approached my educational technology colleagues on my university campus to figure out whether Slate is a tool that we can use and assign to our students. It has to be cleared by our educational technology team before I can start to use it officially in my course. Once it is cleared, I will begin to use it and collect feedback from the students in the pilot.

Please let me know if you have any other questions.

My best,

Photo of Michele Pistone

Hi Isaac Jumba I found another great technology that I am going to test during the final semester of the pilot. Here is the link, It supports student learning through spaced repetition, which is supported by science and prompts students with flashcards at the times that are best for their learning. My students in the pilot have been asking me if there are flashcards they can use to study the material in VIISTA. I found the perfect product to use to build the flashcards - not only are they flashcards but they are supported by science and technology!
I am working with the author of one of the textbooks that we used in VIISTA to develop flashcards for his book - each week students will be given ten cards with concepts they learned that week and based on how well they know the material, the cards will be kept in the deck of flashcards until the student has mastered the concept. I am very excited about this technology since it responds directly to feedback I heard from students/users about their needs.

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