VIISTA — Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates — is a 100% online interdisciplinary educational program that trains students to become immigrant advocates ready to serve migrants and refugees.

Unlike criminal proceedings in which defendants have constitutional rights to representation, in the United States, migrants are not entitled to court appointed lawyers. Six out of 10 migrants confront the immigration system without a lawyer, and many of these migrants are children. The consequences of this 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.

Students who earn VIISTA certificates will be eligible, under existing regulations, to apply to become Department of Justice “accredited representatives,” authorized to provide low-cost legal representation to migrant and refugee families when they work for DOJ "recognized organizations."

Our 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. Everything is learned in the context of what you will do to help migrants and refugees, whether on the job or in volunteer positions.


  • Learn from renowned faculty at the forefront of immigration and advocacy
  • Develop practical skills in immigrant advocacy
  • Explore immigration law and practice
  • Gain insights into why people migrate
  • Transform the legal services experience for migrants and refugees

Who Should Enroll?

VIISTA students...

want to understand immigration better;
are looking for a way to help immigrants;
are compelled to take action;
want to make a meaningful impact;
and are eager to become part of the solution.

VIISTA students come from many fields and backgrounds, including:

  • recent college graduates;
  • retirees;
  • people returning to the workforce;
  • paralegals;
  • Pastoral workers and others in religious congregations;
  • social workers;
  • health care workers;
  • educators;
  • policy advocates;
  • pro bono lawyers;
  • prospective law students; and
  • lifelong learners.

Why Your Help is Needed

Access to legal representation is the primary determinant in obtaining a just immigration outcome.

  • 60% or more of immigrant women and children could be eligible for international protection, such as asylum or another form of humanitarian relief, if they had legal representation
  • 87% of immigrant children with lawyers in NYC win their cases; children without lawyers win only 19% of the time
  • 2% percent of unrepresented immigrants in NYC were granted relief.
  • immigrants are 12 times more likely to gain eligible relief when they are represented
  • only “37 percent of all immigrants secured legal representation in their [immigration court] removal proceedings” and thousands of children go to immigration court alone

Having an advocate is even more important than the strength of the underlying legal claim. Migrants with representation are more likely to be released from detention, appear in court, win their removal cases, and seek and obtain relief from deportation.

The pro bono community is struggling to respond.

A report by the Committee on Immigration Reform Implementation (CIRI) estimates conservatively that at least one million of the unauthorized immigrants living in the United States are eligible for a legal form of relief and would have status in the United States if they had access to legal representation. CIRI found that only 1,200 full-time equivalent staff members provide legal representation to low-income immigrants through a collection of non-profit organizations, far below the demand for their services.

In this cultural moment, increasing numbers of people like you are hungry to help. 

You want to help immigrants, make a meaningful impact, become part of the solution, do more than make donations. You want to understand, create just immigration policies, and make a difference in the lives of migrant families.

Education will help you make a meaningful impact.

VIISTA responds to your desire to learn about immigration so that you can help others. Its online platform means you can study from home and become empowered to take action to help marginalized families and youth in your local communities.

Authority to expand legal services capacity exist.

Accredited representatives (AR) who work for recognized organizations, such as immigrant-serving and faith-based organizations, are authorized under federal regulations to provide low-cost legal representation in immigration proceedings, just as a lawyer would. Partially accredited representatives represent immigrants with applications filed with the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), including applications for citizenship, family-based visas, humanitarian visas (including for victims of crimes, human trafficking and domestic violence), and Temporary Protected Status.

Fully accredited representatives can represent clients, including asylum seekers, in immigration courts and in appeals before the Board of Immigration Appeals. ARs can sign legal documents, submit papers, accompany clients to interviews, and do everything a lawyer would do in court. Despite the growing need for legal representation, today, there are still less than 2,000 accredited representatives nationwide, only 300 of which are fully accredited and authorized to represent clients in immigration court, where the need is greatest. Become part of the solution.

VIISTA bridges migrant needs with students like you who are eager to act. 

By providing online training specifically designed to teach the competencies needed to advocate effectively, VIISTA bridges the divide between immigrant communities that need advocates and passionate people like you.

Partial and Full Accreditation Defined

The Department of Justice (DOJ) authorizes people with training in immigration law who work or volunteer for certain recognized organizations to provide low cost legal services to migrants and refugees. There are two levels of DOJ accreditation – partial and full.

A partially accredited representative may represent clients before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), but not before the immigration courts. These cases are not adversarial in nature (there is no opposing counsel), generally involve requests for immigration benefits or humanitarian protection, and are completed through paper filings. Module 2 prepares students to become Partially Accredited Representatives.

To obtain DOJ accredited representative authorization, an accredited representative must work or volunteer for a DOJ “recognized organization.” Most recognized organizations are non-governmental organizations that provide free or low cost legal representation to immigrants, including immigrant-serving organizations, faith-based organizations and public libraries.

View a list of DOJ recognized organizations.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) authorizes people with training in immigration law and trial advocacy who work or volunteer for certain recognized organizations to provide low cost legal services to migrants and refugees. There are two levels of DOJ accreditation – partial and full.

Fully accredited representative are authorized to appear before the immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), both of which reside in the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Court cases involve adversarial hearings before a judge with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lawyers representing the government. The majority of cases in immigration court focus on defense to deportation. The vast majority of the 2000 authorized accredited representatives are partially rather than fully accredited and are not authorized to represent clients in court. Module 3 prepares students to become Fully Accredited Representatives.

To obtain DOJ accredited representative authorization, an accredited representative must work or volunteer for a DOJ “recognized organization.” Most recognized organizations are non-governmental organizations that provide free or low cost legal representation to immigrants, including immigrant-serving organizations, faith-based organizations and public libraries.

View a list of DOJ recognized organizations.

Pope Francis recently called on Catholic universities worldwide to contribute to research and teaching about refugees and migrants. As a Catholic and Augustinian institution with a deep and long-standing commitment to community service and founded to educate immigrants, Villanova is answering Pope Francis’ call.

Michele R. Pistone

Professor of Law & Director, Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services (CARES)
Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law

Villanova is pleased to offer a limited number of scholarships to VIISTA students. Please click the 'more' buttons below for information and to apply by 4/14 for Summer!

CPS VIISTA Scholarship

For students who are sponsored by a Dept. of Justice recognized organization.

Justamere Scholars Scholarship

For bilingual, bicultural students from Southeast Pennsylvania.


  • Villanova Offers Online Certificate Program to Train Immigrant Advocates
    IN THE NEWS: DIVERSE ISSUES IN HIGHER EDUCATION. Michele Pistone, a professor of law at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and an immigration lawyer for nearly 30 years, has founded the first university-based online certificate program that trains immigrant advocates to serve migrants and refugees.

  • New program trains non-lawyers to assist asylum seekers who have no legal counsel
    IN THE NEWS | THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH. After 20 years of teaching law students to defend asylum seekers and even more time defending them herself, Michele Pistone was distressed that many immigrants still have to face the complicated United States asylum system without an advocate — or even any understanding of the process. So, she designed a program to train more people to represent asylum seekers and immigrants.

  • WATCH: First Person Interview - Michele Pistone and VIISTA
    IN THE NEWS | REFUGEE, MIGRANT AND EDUCATION NETWORK. Villanova Immigration Studies Training Program founder, Michele Pistone, was interviewed by Refugee and Migrant Education Network.

  • Most Asylum Seekers Have No Legal Counsel. This Villanova Program Trains Non-Lawyers to Step In.
    IN THE NEWS | THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION. After a successful pilot that ended in May, she started a program this fall to certify students to become legal advocates for migrants and refugees. “Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates,” offered through the university’s College of Professional Studies, is described as the first university-based, fully online program to train immigrant advocates. That format, planned before the pandemic forced most courses online, allows easier access for working professionals, including those in rural areas, and keeps costs low.

  • New Villanova program tackles ‘justice gap’ for immigrants
    IN THE NEWS | CATHOLICPHILLY.COM A new program at Villanova University is helping migrants and refugees by equipping advocates to provide desperately needed legal aid. Launched in August, the Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigrations Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA) consists of a one-year, fully online curriculum that enables graduates to become U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) accredited representatives.


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“Immigrant advocates model a new way forward to revolutionize the provision of legal services, akin to nurse practitioners in healthcare.”
-Professor Michele Pistone
Founder, VIISTA


"I want to make a difference in the lives of immigrants but lacked the proper skills. VIISTA addresses a real need and gives me the tools necessary to step up and provide valuable support to immigrants in my community."
-Adam Vincent
VIISTA student


"I joined VIISTA to deepen my commitment as an immigrant advocate. At the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, I have the honor of standing alongside asylum-seeking families seeking the right to protection and safety in the U.S. My day to day work has shown me the huge gaps in access to legal representation across the country and the drastic disparity in outcome, when asylum-seeking families do not have access to an attorney. VIISTA is an innovative model that removes traditional barriers to law school through its’ remote, self-paced classroom model, allowing people like me to gain a comprehensive understanding of immigration law and advocacy. I truly believe VIISTA is the future direction of the immigrant rights movement, to respond to the huge need for legal representation and to give every immigrant family their day in court."
-Nicole Tan
VIISTA Student


"VIISTA provides the education and tools to turn my concern and passion into effective compassion. Along with the law, you will learn the history, spiritual and truly human aspects of immigration.

VIISTA’s interdisciplinary focus will challenge you to grow as a person, ally and companion. I have gained a deeper appreciation of the legal and human issues facing our immigrant families. Knowledge of the law gives you the tools to be effective, VIISTA’s other components provides you the means to be compassionate."
-John Marshall Kingery
VIISTA Student

Important Notices for Distance Education Students

The following includes important information for students participating in online courses, online programs and/or on-ground clinicals or practicums while physically located outside of Pennsylvania.

Read the Notices for Distance Education Students