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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.

Photo of Michele Pistone
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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:

immigrantadvocate.villanova.edu

Type of submitter

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

Organization Headquarters: Country

USA

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

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Photo of Isaac Jumba
Team

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

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