Immigrants in America face a profound justice gap: six out of ten confront the immigration system without a lawyer. And that carries dire consequences: the Vera Institute of Justice found that immigrants with legal representation had an 1,100% increase in successful immigration court outcomes compared to unrepresented cases—leaving far fewer families torn apart by deportation orders. Unlike criminal proceedings in which defendants have the right to representation, immigrants are not entitled to court-appointed lawyers. And in a vast number of cases, immigration attorneys are out of reach due to access or cost constraints. As a bold solution, the Villanova University Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA) program will offer the first university-based, online certificate program to train non-lawyers to assist immigrants. VIISTA seeks to revolutionize immigration law by educating a new category of legal advocates, much like the role nurse practitioners play in health care. Under existing regulations, graduates will be eligible to apply to become Department of Justice “accredited representatives” who can provide low-cost representation. VIISTA’s scalable and affordable platform will build a nationwide pipeline for hundreds, if not thousands, of passionate advocates fighting to advance immigrants’ rights.
Unlike criminal proceedings in which defendants have constitutional rights to representation, immigrants are not entitled to court appointed lawyers. Six out of ten immigrants confront the immigration system without a lawyer. Even child migrants are not granted free representation. The consequences are substantial: the Vera Institute found that immigrants are 12 times more likely to obtain available relief when they have an advocate. Lack of advocacy disrupts families and communities in life-altering ways. With each deportation order, families are separated, employers lose employees, and communities lose valued neighbors and friends. It is understood within the immigrant-serving community that we need more immigrant 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.
Every time I walk into an immigration court I feel angry and ashamed. Angry and ashamed that we have an immigration legal system designed for failure. A system that is not primarily designed to focus on truth or justice. But that is primarily designed—like a shoddy assembly line —to push the product through. In this case the product is immigration cases—just get them out the door; send them back home. I believe that immigrants confronting the immigration system deserve justice. That belief drives me every day as I work to establish the first university-based, comprehensive, online, scalable, and affordable immigration-focused education. VIISTA will create a nationwide pipeline of advocate champions committed to securing justice for immigrants.
I have three broad challenges: First, how to build a vibrant, cohesive, online community? Prospective and 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. Second, 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. And third, how best to evaluate the impact of the program, set goals, develop benchmarks, and collect data?
I am blessed to have been and continue to be informed by many leaders in the immigration field. Many of the largest national organizations working with immigrants are helping me to build the curriculum, including Catholic Relief Services, Immigrant Justice Corps, and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).
The Prize will help me to scale VIISTA. My goal is to graduate 10,000 immigrant advocates over the next ten years. And, it is realistic. Then, if every one of those new immigrant advocates helped just one immigrant family each month, they would help 660,000 immigrant families over ten 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, evictions, simple divorces, and veteran’s affairs. Just like the medical field provided space for nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
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