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Villanova University Announces Launch of New Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training Program for Immigrant Advocates

The fully online program will educate and train individuals who wish to provide legal assistance to and serve as advocates for migrants and refugees.

Offered through Villanova’s College of Professional Studies, the certificate program is based upon the applied research of Law Professor Michele Pistone.


Villanova University Announces Launch of New Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training Program for Immigrant Advocates
Michele Pistone (pictured here standing) collaborated with immigrant advocacy and legal services organizations, potential employers, law professors, lawyers, prospective students, accredited representatives and retired immigration judges to build the VIISTA curriculum.

VILLANOVA, Pa.—Villanova University has announced the launch of a new online program to educate and train individuals to advocate for and serve migrants and refugees. This program—Villanova Interdisciplinary Immigration Studies Training for Advocates (VIISTA)—will cover migration from an interdisciplinary perspective, preparing advocates to provide support, including legal assistance, to migrants and refugees. Offered through the University’s College of Professional Studies, the program will fill an educational gap in the field of migration. As an institution founded to educate immigrant children, this type of a program is tied to Villanova’s history and demonstrates its strong commitment to serving the greater good.

“VIISTA responds to the tremendous need for immigrant advocates and also to the growing interest in immigration law and advocacy,” said Michele Pistone, JD, LLM, Professor of Law at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law, and the Founder and Faculty Director of VIISTA. “It also answers a call from Pope Francis for Catholic colleges and universities worldwide to do more for migrants and refugees in the areas of education, research and service. Access to justice restores immigrants’ joy, hope and dignity.”

According to the American Immigration Council, at the present, six out of every 10 immigrants that goes to immigration court does so without a lawyer—making the demand for fully accredited representatives to serve as immigration advocates in court much higher than the existing number. Pistone saw a solution to this problem. VIISTA derives from her research on using emerging technologies to reimagine legal education and the legal services marketplace, as well as her experience in and passion for immigration law and asylum.

“As an immigration lawyer and scholar of disruptive innovation, I knew we could reimagine legal education and the provision of legal services to provide much-needed advocacy for underrepresented communities, such as immigrants and refugees,” said Pistone. “Through scalable online technologies, together with existing regulations that allow non-lawyers to provide certain legal services to immigrants, I felt that a viable solution was attainable. I envision a future in which every immigrant confronting the immigration system has an advocate. VIISTA will have an impact in helping educate people to serve in these important roles.”

VIISTA’s innovative, interdisciplinary and holistic curriculum is specifically designed to train non-lawyers to become accredited representatives, who can apply for authorization to represent immigrants before the Department of Homeland Security and the Immigration Courts.

“When migrants and refugees confront the immigration system with an immigrant advocate, their chances of success on the merits increase dramatically,” Pistone notes.

Pistone collaborated with immigrant advocacy organizations, legal services organizations, potential employers, law professors, lawyers, prospective students, accredited representatives and retired immigration judges to build the curriculum. User-centered design was utilized to create program content and assignments that align directly with tasks graduates will do on the job.

“The beauty of VIISTA and the way the curriculum was designed is that it caters to so many individuals who work with the immigrant community in different ways,” said Christine Kelleher Palus, PhD, Dean of the College of Professional Studies. “Some of our prospective students may desire to learn a bit more about how to work with immigrants and to better understand their needs. These students may take only Module 1 to gain that critical knowledge. Others will choose to continue on to become either partially or fully accredited representatives by completing Modules 2 and 3. As a 100% online program, we also have the opportunity to enroll students from across the country.”

The VIISTA program is built as three separate modules, each 14 weeks long. Students will be able to chart their own paths in the program by determining their end goal. Module 1 focuses on how to successfully work with immigrants and is the foundation for the program. This will provide individuals from a wide range of careers and backgrounds—pastoral workers, educators, healthcare and social workers, etc.—with the skillset to interview immigrants and appreciate the global migration phenomenon and immigration ecosystem.

In Modules 2 and 3, individuals add to the foundational knowledge through practice-based study of immigration law and practice and trial advocacy. These Modules are designed to train people to apply to become Department of Justice (DOJ) partially accredited representatives (Module 2), or fully accredited representatives (Module 3). Under existing regulations, the DOJ authorizes accredited representatives working with non-profit organizations to provide legal services to immigrants and refugees. Although these regulations have been on the books for decades, there are less than 2,000 accredited representatives today and only 300 fully accredited representatives according to a roster from the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.

VIISTA will officially launch in Fall 2020. To learn more about VIISTA, click here to visit the program website.

Pistone founded and directed the Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services (CARES) at Villanova’s Charles Widger School of Law since 1999. She also founded the Law School’s in-house Clinical Program, which she built and directed for nine years. Additionally, Pistone is an Associate Editor of the Journal on Migration and Human Security, a non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Migration Studies, and serves as an expert on migration for the Holy See Mission to the United Nations.

About Villanova University: Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's six colleges—the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, the College of Professional Studies and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Ranked among the nation’s top universities, Villanova supports its students’ intellectual growth and prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them. For more, visit