How to Become an Immigration Specialist

lady liberty in new york taken by the author. lady liberty is the symbol of immigration and freedom.
Lady Liberty – Picture by Heidy De La Cruz

Did you know that there was a way you could provide legal representation to asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants without being an immigration attorney?

The Department of Justice allows accredited representatives to provide legal immigration representation once they earn the VIISTA certification through Villanova University. This program is 100% online and it trains students to be advocates of immigrants and be ready to serve the community.

What Is the Recognition and Accreditation Program?

The Recognition and Accreditation (R&A) program from the Department of Justice allows non-attorney “Accredited Representatives” to represent migrants or asylum seekers before the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR). Because migrants aren’t entitled to court-appointed attorneys this program helps provide legal representation for immigration cases. Representatives with accreditation must be part of an organization recognized by the DOJ to provide legal services. Those are non-profits, and federally tax-exempt organizations.

In the most recent episode of my podcast, I speak with Joanne McAfee who went through the VIISTA certification program. She has accreditation with the DOJ, and currently serves as an immigration specialist at Catholic Charities in Delaware. Joanne explains the process of how she got into becoming accredited, and what type of work she does.

If you are looking for a way to help serve in the immigration space but don’t want to become an immigration attorney maybe you can can become an accredited representative. There is an enormous backlog of immigration cases and not enough help. Currently, it takes years for a judge to hear a case. And the judges hear the majority of the cases without legal representation and this includes children.

What’s the Difference Between Partial and Full Accreditation?

Villanova University explains the difference between a partially accredited representative and a full. With partial accreditation, the representative may represent clients before Customers and Border Patrol (CBP) or United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) but not before immigration courts. Representative with fully accreditation have authorization to appear before the immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The majority of the representatives with accreditation are partially partially rather than fully so they aren’t able to represent clients in court. If considering becoming accredited consider going full accreditation.

Immigration Needs Your Help

According to IBIS World – there are 13,498 immigration lawyers active in the US as of 2023. Which is a 3% increase from last year. However, there are over 2 million pending immigration cases currently. There aren’t enough attorneys to represent all the cases. By becoming accredited with the DOJ you 

Because of the backlog currently in the immigration system, it takes years for immigration cases to be complete. Policies and laws are constantly changing, so what may have been valid when the case was first filed may not be valid years down the line. You can listen more about this in episode 8 of my podcast. 

You may like: Episode Summary – Questions & Answers with Immigration Attorney

The immigration system in the United States is complex and outdated. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution possible because every case is unique. Nevertheless, we can involve ourselves by educating ourselves and advocating for policies that center on human rights and dignity. And if you feel called to do more but don’t want to go to law school becoming an Immigration Specialist with the DOJ is a great alternative.

With Love, Heidy

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