in America

Pittsburgh's Latino community is small, diverse, growing — and anxious.

Jose Raymondo Marroquin said he would fear for his life if he were deported to his native Guatemala, where he challenged local drug dealers. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Jose Raymondo Marroquin said he would fear for his life if he were deported to his native Guatemala, where he challenged local drug dealers. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

in America

Pittsburgh's Latino community is small, diverse, growing — and anxious.


July 10, 2017

By Peter Smith


Jose Raymondo Marroquin feels the weight of the stepped-up immigration enforcement.

It’s there in the form of an ankle bracelet he has worn since he was arrested along with two co-workers one morning this spring on their way to an interior-painting job in Oakland — the thing feared by Latinos like him who live here without legal status. 

Mr. Marroquin, 47, is grateful that he was spared the fate of one of his co-workers, who was immediately deported. In his case, officials from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, have allowed him to remain free while he reports in on a regularly scheduled basis, and they can monitor his whereabouts via the electronic bracelet.

Mr. Marroquin at least has time to plead his case — that his life would be in jeopardy if he were deported back to his native Guatemala. He fled his homeland in 2013, he said, in the wake of death threats from local drug dealers who were plying his 10-year-old son and other local children with marijuana.

“I was absolutely distraught,” he said. “I put myself on my knees and prayed to God because I couldn’t understand why someone would want to corrupt youth like that.”

Everyone back home praised him for standing up to the dealers. They told him, “This is good that you do this, but you also are the scapegoat. And now you are paying the consequences.”

Those consequences included fleeing north, riding the notoriously dangerous train called La Bestia, “The Beast,” up through Mexico. He illegally crossed the U.S. border with the paid help of a “coyote,” or guide, and made his way to Pittsburgh, where a cousin was living.

Mr. Marroquin found low-paying jobs as a restaurant dishwasher and later as a painter. He arranged to bring two of his teenage children here, whom he’s raising along with a nephew as they attend Brashear High School.

Until this year, Mr. Marroquin would have likely continued living a semi-underground life like most of the estimated 11 million immigrants lacking legal status, the vast majority of them from Latin America.

The administration of former President Barack Obama had eased enforcement against immigrants who lacked legal status but had established themselves here, had no serious criminal record and posed no national-security risk.

But enforcement has ramped up since the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has begun to make good on a central rallying cry of his successful 2016 campaign, the denunciation of illegal immigration.

Anxiety has permeated the Latino community in the months since his Nov. 8 victory. That could be seen as soon as the normally festive celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, a red-letter date for many Latino Catholics, which took on more of a tone of lament and resilience.

Members of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Beechview marched outside on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016, to call attention to the plight of immigrants. The march came the day before the annual feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom Catholics revere as patroness of Mexico and of the Americas. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

The large majority of Latinos are, in fact, U.S. citizens or legal residents.

But tensions are high for those who aren’t, and their families, supporters and anyone concerned about a broader anti-Latino backlash.

Immigrants and their advocates have marched in various demonstrations in recent months, often joining with refugees and Muslims challenging similar travel restrictions under the Trump administration. Some are calling for Pittsburgh and other local governments to have “sanctuary” status and not cooperate with deportation efforts.

Some local immigrants have been deported already, others have been detained and still others, like Mr. Marroquin, are awaiting hearings.

Many, though, have lived with knowing their turn may be next, whether they’re farm workers in an outlying county or whether they’re suburban restaurant dish washers.

They’ve been preparing “deportation defense packets,” a set of legal documents that determine such things as who can care for the children if the parents find themselves detained or deported. The kids, often U.S. citizens themselves, are learning that such temporary guardians might be picking them up from school on any given day if their parents are arrested.

Many have been afraid to go outdoors more than they have to.

“I have never seen this level of fear in the 15 years of work I’ve done with undocumented people,” said Guillermo Perez, president of the Pittsburgh Labor Council for Latin American Advancement 

“We’ve seen more people detained by ICE,” said Sheila Velez Martinez, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who directs the Immigration Law Clinic. “I wouldn’t say it’s an enormous amount of cases yet, but we were seeing very little of that over the past couple of years because of the immigration priorities” of the previous administration.

Now, she said, “there are no priorities,” with any immigrant subject to deportation proceedings even with an otherwise clean record.

From Jan. 20 through April 30, ICE officers arrested 1,084 people on immigration offenses in its Philadelphia region, which covers Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Delaware.

That’s nearly a 25 percent increase over the 871 arrests in the same period in 2016. In both years, the majority of those arrested were convicted criminals — but this year’s increase was almost entirely due to arrests of immigrants without criminal records, which more than doubled from 201 to 422, according to ICE statistics.

Attorney Cristian Minor speaks with families about a power of attorney agreement at Casa San Jose in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Nationwide, immigration arrests went up nearly 40% to 41,318 between late January and April, according to ICE figures.

“ICE focuses its enforcement resources first on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security,” said an agency statement. “However, as [Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly] has made clear, ICE will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

The statement added that ICE “does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.” Its “operations are targeted and lead driven, prioritizing individuals who pose a risk to our communities. Examples would include known street gang members, child sex offenders, and deportable foreign nationals with significant drug trafficking convictions.”

‘There is no line’

In campaign speeches, Mr. Trump repeatedly led call-and-response cheers for walling off Mexico. At a Harrisburg rally in April, he reprised his campaign trope of linking illegal immigrants to violent crime, which he illustrated by reading a poem about embracing a “vicious snake.”

Monica Ruiz, a community organizer with Casa San Jose, a Brookline-based resource center for Latino immigrants, said the impact of anti-immigrant rhetoric and presidential orders cast a stigma not just on immigrants but anyone deemed to look Hispanic. The U.S.-born woman says that when she talks to her children in Spanish in public, she hears remarks like, “Why are you here?”

“When things like these executive orders come out, what does it say to people?” she said. Immigrants are often fleeing horrible conditions in their homelands. “These people are human beings. These people are dying to come here. That’s got to tell you something. How bad does it have to be to risk your life, the life of your wife, your children, to do the same? They’re not here to drain the system.”

Adrian Juarez of Sewickley waves the Honduran flag during a February pro-immigrant rally in Beechview. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Brandeli Rojas of Beechview listens to one of the speakers during a February pro-immigrant rally in Beechview. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

To those who say that immigrants should line up at U.S. embassies in their home countries and apply for legal immigration, Latinos say such options are out of reach for many. Visas for legal entry are relatively rare and families facing poverty, violence or both don’t have the luxury of time.

“There’s always borders for people with no money,” said Ms. Ruiz’s husband, Horacio Ruiz. “For people with money, there’s no borders.”

He originally crossed the border from Mexico without legal authorization in the 1990s. He later gained legal residency and citizenship while working in restaurant management and investing in rental properties. Such opportunities to be an entrepreneur barely existed in his homeland.

“We were from a poor family with no money,” he said.

Pittsburgh had a high-profile immigration case earlier this year involving Mexico native Martin Esquivel-Hernandez, who had previously been deported four times but otherwise had no criminal record.

Advocates pleaded for him to be allowed to stay, citing his contributions to the community and the fact that his mother, wife and three children were all here. He was detained under the Obama administration last year, but after months of legal maneuvers, he was ultimately deported in February.

Mr. Ruiz said customers at the restaurant where he worked had heard about the case in the news and asked him, “Why didn’t he come the right way? Why didn’t he wait in line like anybody else?” 

Mr. Ruiz told them: “There is no line. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Most people have no money. You have no money, you have to immigrate to find a job. They’re not going to give you papers because you have no money.”

Frank Rondon, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Sion in Brookline, told of a family in his church who had a successful business selling mobile phones in their native Mexico. Then one day, masked robbers invaded their home in search of money, fracturing the father’s skull, dislocating the mother’s shoulder and traumatizing the children who witnessed it.

“They said, ‘We need to leave this country. We cannot stay here,’ ” and they came to America, said Mr. Rondon.

Mr. Rondon, a native of Venezuela, said that although he came here under legal visas and eventually became a U.S. citizen, he can empathize with those who entered under such desperate circumstances without legal papers.

Several dozen pro-immigration supporters protest in March outside State Rep. Dom Costa's office in Morningside. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

He urges church members not to live in fear, rely on God and go about their daily lives as they learn English, go to work and take steps to attain legal residency.

“I’m not against the government enforcing its laws,” he said, adding that those immigrants who do commit crimes shouldn’t be surprised about being deported. “What do you expect?” he said.

But the immigration process, he said, has to provide “a way that is easier for people that are good for the country to be here, and to be here without any fear.”

He added: “If it was easy to get a visa, they wouldn’t go through the desert for a few days hoping to make it alive.”

Small Hispanic population

Pittsburgh has fewer Hispanics by far than any American metro area its size or larger, and fewer than many smaller metro areas as well. It has a tiny fraction of the nation’s estimated 57 million Hispanics, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There were 35,730 Latinos in the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area as of 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, with two-thirds of them in Allegheny County and the rest in six surrounding counties. That number is dwarfed by Latino populations in New York, Chicago and numerous Sun Belt cities, several topping a million and several more close to it.

Even in this region, Pittsburgh’s Latino population trails those of metro Philadelphia (330,000), Cleveland (107,000), Allentown-Bethlehem (113,000) and even Scranton-Wilkes Barre (41,000).

Allegheny’s Hispanic population ranks 279th among U.S. counties, according to the Pew Research Center. 

Most Pittsburgh-area Hispanics are U.S.-born, though that can include children of foreign-born parents. 

Created with Highstock 5.0.12Number of peopleThe region’s Hispanic/Latino populationPittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) includes Allegheny,Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.2 ,358 ,9302 ,358 ,9301 ,231 ,1501 ,231 ,150305 ,928305 ,92835 ,73035 ,73022 ,53722 ,5378 ,3198 ,319Non-Hispanic/Latino populationHispanic/Latino populationPittsburgh MSAAllegheny CountyCity of Pittsburgh0250k500k750k1 ,000k1 ,250k1 ,500k1 ,750k2 ,000k2 ,250k2 ,500k2 ,750kSource: American Community Survey, 2011-15, U.S. Census Bureau; graphic: James Hilston/Post-Gazette
Created with Highstock 5.0.12Number of peopleBreakdown of Hispanic/Latino populationPittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver,Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) includes Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.12 ,57312 ,5737 ,4017 ,4012 ,7132 ,7139 ,7209 ,7206 ,2296 ,2292 ,0602 ,0601 ,5051 ,5059429424934931 ,2151 ,2158328323903902 ,3112 ,3111 ,5851 ,5855725724 ,4064 ,4063 ,2333 ,2331 ,2441 ,2444 ,0004 ,0002 ,3152 ,315847847MexicanPuerto RicanCubanDominicanCentral AmericanSouth AmericanOtherPittsburgh MSAAllegheny CountyCity of Pittsburgh05k10k15k20k25k30k35k40kSources: American Community Survey, 2011-15, U.S. Census Bureau; graphic: James Hilston/Post-Gazette

Why hasn’t Pittsburgh seen Hispanic immigration levels like those of even many northern cities?

Largely it’s due to relatively slow job growth over the decades, particularly in lower-skilled jobs, said researcher Christopher Briem of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social and Urban Research. “Without that underlying source of attracting migrants, either from elsewhere in the nation, or international, it is hard to get a lot of new diversity injected into the region,” he said.

And to the extent the Latino population is growing, that’s partly due to the growing diversity of Americans in general. “To the degree that roughly 40,000 folks move into the region each year other than students, that flow has to be more diverse than it was in the past,” he said.

“We may be the only metro in the nation with more folks settling here permanently from Uzbekistan than from Mexico,” he said.

Pittsburgh has long had a small population of professionals such as professors and researchers with roots in Spain and Latin America. Newer arrivals include lower-skilled immigrants, particularly from Mexico and Central America. Some are drawn by job possibilities, and connections to family and friends, as well as many of the same livability factors that attract others, such as affordable housing and safe neighborhoods.

Spanish-language businesses have sprouted in areas such as the southern neighborhoods of Beechview and Brookline, including Las Palmas grocers, which cater to Hispanic residents as well as others lining up for fresh tacos.

William Santos, 17, ninth grade, attends an English as a Second Language (ESL) program for Spanish-speaking students offered by Casa San Jose at Brashear High School. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Spanish-language Catholic and Protestant churches and worship services have taken root. Iglesia Cristiana Sion on Brookline Boulevard is believed to be the first primarily Hispanic congregation to have its own property in the city, and the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh recently hired its first director of Hispanic outreach.

Latino Day has become an annual event at the Kennywood amusement park, joining longer-established heritage days such as the Slovak, Croatian and Italian days.

Latino students are a growing presence at schools like Brashear, where many not only take English as a Second Language class but take part in a weekly after-school enrichment program held in conjunction with Casa San Jose.

Often they get tutoring in ESL, other times they socialize. On a recent day this spring, they heard a know-your-rights talk by Dormont attorney Kristen A. Schneck, who chairs the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

The program offers “a way for kids to find themselves in the school,” said Brashear Spanish teacher Vivian Varlotta, who advises the after-school group. “They meet each other, communicate in their own language and feel comfortable about it.” Some of the students worked with an art teacher to create a Hispanic-themed mural in Beechview.

And despite the anxiety, there’s love in the time of Trump. 

New bride Jeimy Sanchez-Ruiz celebrates with family and friends during her April wedding reception in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Jeimy Sanchez-Ruiz and her husband, Pedro, married this spring, gathered for their reception at a social hall on Brookline Boulevard with about 100 others to celebrate. She in her white gown, he in his tuxedo, danced with their friends to a variety of Latin rhythms and the splashes of brightly colored party lights.

Pittsburgh does not consider itself a “sanctuary city,” a designation that has varied interpretations, but its Bureau of Police adopted an “unbiased policing” policy in 2014, according to Tim McNulty, spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto. The policy states that officers “will work with federal authorities [including ICE] to apprehend wanted criminals. At the same time, however, the policy bars officers from asking people about immigration matters,” he said.

The aim, Mr. McNulty said, is to “develop and build trust with immigrant communities, which will only help police and communities fight crime.”

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.


After human trafficking case, a new life

Julian Asenjo, left, and Sister Janice Vanderneck react with delight in March after seeing the green card that Jose Luis Ajiatas-Solval was just granted. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Julian Asenjo, left, and Sister Janice Vanderneck react with delight in March after seeing the green card that Jose Luis Ajiatas-Solval was just granted. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

After human trafficking case, a new life

A new life in America came only after a 'horrible' ordeal in Georgia fields, said plaintiffs in human-trafficking case

Rodolfo Calderon-Gomez, his brother-in-law and other men came to America on legal work visas in 2012 from their rural Guatemalan village.

They were lured by promises they would earn $9.30 an hour picking fruit at a farm in Georgia. The promise of such excellent pay by Guatemala standards enticed them to put up their meager property holdings as collateral to borrow money for the fees for their visas and transportation.

“When we arrived here they did not fulfill that promise,” Mr. Calderon-Gomez, now 34, said matter of factly in an interview.

They were paid not by the hour but by their production, a dollar per five-gallon container of squashes, he said in an interview and in court documents. Since it was the end of the harvest, the best they could do is fill 10 containers on a given day.

According to a lawsuit filed on several workers’ behalf in U.S. District Court in Middle Georgia, when the workers tried to demand the pay they were promised, they were threatened with arrest or deportation, even though they were here legally.

“Every day they would try to fill us with more and more fear,” he said.

In other words, Mr. Calderon-Gomez said, he was at risk of falling into a far deeper financial hole than if the job recruiter had never come to his village. He stood to lose his one asset, his property back home, by defaulting on the loan he thought he could pay back by earning what was promised.

Rodolfo Calderon and his wife, Irma Ajiataz, clean the offices at Casa San Jose in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

They were among 42 laborers housed in just three mobile homes, sleeping on thin foam mats on wooden platforms, with broken plumbing, according to their lawsuit.

“We decided this is no way to survive,” he said. “We could see very clearly that in eight months gaining this little amount of money, we were never going to pay all our expenses back and we were going to lose our land in Guatemala and that’s where my wife and kids were living. We were facing a horrible future. 

He and his brother-in-law, Jose Luis Ajiatas-Solval, slipped out of camp at midnight one night and, with the help of a Guatemalan man living nearby, found their way to a bus station. They called a friend in Pittsburgh who was originally from their Guatemalan hometown, and the friend arranged for their transportation here.

The friend put them in touch with a legal-aid organization here who, upon hearing of their plight, filed for a T visa on their behalf, a type of legal status for victims of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is defined under federal law as obtaining someone’s labor through force, fraud or coercion. A goal of the T visa program is to encourage victims to cooperate with investigations. After all his employers’ threats of deportation, Mr. Calderon-Gomez said they were fearful of coming forward to federal authorities, because if they were sent home they’d have no money to save their homes from foreclosure. “We had terrible fear of telling this story to the FBI. In our country, we have a little land.” 

But they took the chance.

He and Mr. Ajiatas-Solval received T visas and, earlier this year, green cards, extending their legal residency here and giving them a chance for citizenship. They’re working on a landscaping crew at the South Hills Country Club. Mr. Calderon-Gomez and his wife also work in maintenance at Casa San Jose, the social service agency in Brookline where they and many other Hispanics turn for legal help.

Mr. Calderon-Gomez has been able to bring his wife here as well as their daughter, now 15 and a student at Brashear High School, and a son, now 13, who received a scholarship to attend a Catholic high school.

Also, the Farmworker Rights Division of Georgia Legal Services filed the federal lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of the two men and three others against those who had recruited and employed them in Georgia. Although the defendants denied the charges, the case was settled in 2016, with the men being paid $10,000 total, according to Georgia Legal Services.

No criminal charges were brought, said Dawson Morton, the attorney who represented them and who now represents migrant farmworkers in California.

Such cases, he said, are small pieces in the much larger phenomenon of human trafficking. “The risk of retaliation is the dominant way workers are controlled,” Mr. Morton said.

“For every Jose Luis and Rodolfo, there are 45 co-workers who get no resolution,” Mr. Morton said.

Human trafficking is a global problem, with the United Nations estimating there are 21 million victims worldwide, including 1.5 million in developed economies such as the United States. Even with comprehensive U.S. legislation in 2000 designed to combat the crime, and subsequent law-enforcement operations, it persists in this country, according to a U.S. State Department report.

“The United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, transgender individuals, and children — both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals — subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor,” said the 2017 edition of the annual State Department report on trafficking worldwide. “Trafficking occurs in both legal and illicit industries, including in commercial sex, hospitality, traveling sales crews, agriculture, seafood, manufacturing, janitorial services, construction, restaurants, care for persons with disabilities, salon services, fairs and carnivals, peddling and begging, drug smuggling and distribution, and child care and domestic work.”

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.


Pioneer in immigrant services

Sister Janice Vanderneck speaks with a client on the phone in February at Casa San Jose, Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Sister Janice Vanderneck speaks with a client on the phone in February at Casa San Jose, Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Pioneer in immigrant services

At Casa San Jose, a Roman Catholic sister and her colleagues provide a 'vital ministry' for Latinos settling here.

The man in his work clothes came in on a chilly morning alongside his young child in a winter hat with teddy-bear ears.

At first, the man made small talk in Spanish with the staff he had gotten to know at Casa San Jose, an all-purpose social-support center for Hispanic immigrants.

Then he pulled a small card from a manila envelope, and sudden whoops of enthusiasm went up.

“He got his green card,” said Sister Janice Vanderneck, founder of the Brookline-based agency. “This is a good news day.” 

The Guatemalan man had come to the United States under a work visa but found himself coerced to work long hours for far less pay than promised at a fruit farm in Georgia, according to a federal lawsuit filed on his and others’ behalf.

He escaped, resettled to Pittsburgh and received a “T visa,” which enables victims of human trafficking to live and work here legally. The green card extended his residency and put him “on his way to becoming a citizen,” Sister Vanderneck said.

“We don’t get this very often,” said Sister Vanderneck.

Much of the day-to-day work conducted by her and her colleagues may lack the drama of such breakthroughs.

But for the past decade and a half, the energetic Sister Vanderneck, now 67, has been at the heart of efforts to welcome and integrate Hispanic immigrants in the Pittsburgh area.

She and others at Casa San Jose have helped them navigate searches for jobs, homes and social services. She has accompanied them at immigration court hearings, taken their late-night calls, attended their wedding receptions, sung in Spanish Catholic Masses, helped to serve Latin-themed holiday dinners and spoken up for immigrants before politicians, clergy and judges.

“She is one of the best resources the Latino community has in Pittsburgh,” said Lizbeth Garcia of Dormont, a member of that small but growing population.

“This is a vital ministry, especially at this time in our country, and the anti-immigrant sentiment that is so prevalent now,” added the Rev. Karen Battle, interim pastor at St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, which hosts Casa San Jose.

Sister Vanderneck served as executive director at Casa San Jose from its founding in 2013 until early July. As of July 1, she has held the new role of director of civic engagement, which will include speaking at public gatherings, fund-raising and working with partner agencies. The transition helps fulfill her long-range goal of setting Casa San Jose on course to being self-sustaining.

Succeeding her as executive director is Julian Asenjo, who had been working as a service coordinator and previously served as a board member of Casa San Jose. He brings more than 30 years of experience in international education, travel and advising at the University of Pittsburgh.

Sister Janice Vanderneck, right, shares a laugh with volunteer Kate Berson in February at Casa San Jose in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Sister Vanderneck is marking her 50th anniversary this year in the Sisters of St. Joseph, a Roman Catholic religious order based in Baden, Beaver County. She has taught high school Spanish and religion, worked among Latinos in Miami and done mission work in the Amazon region of Brazil. More recently, she did social-service outreach with Hispanics out of Catholic parishes before launching Casa San Jose.

“When the sisters asked me to do this they said, ‘You have this passion for Latinos — go and start an agency,’” recalled Sister Vanderneck, who has short, salt-and-pepper hair and a strong, no-nonsense alto voice, which served her well in her previous roles as a teacher and principal.

A mutual acquaintance put her in touch with St. Mark’s, a small but socially active congregation in Brookline, a neighborhood with a growing Hispanic congregation. 

Leaders at St. Mark’s “said to me, ‘We see the Latinos here, we don’t speak Spanish, we want to reach out in some way, so you can be our way of reaching out,’” Sister Vanderneck recalled. 

Ever since, Casa San Jose’s staff and volunteers have worked in the tight basement quarters of the church’s former Sunday school rooms amid desks, filing cabinets and floor fans. Its stated mission: to be “a community resource center ​that advocates for and empowers Latinos by promoting integration and self-sufficiency.”

Community organizer Monica Ruiz, standing in doorway, speaks to Sister Janice Vanderneck in February at Casa San Jose in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Maria Lopez, center, of Brookline, and her children, Melanie Martinez, 5, and Iker Martinez, 4, meet with Casa San Jose service coordinator Veronica Jenkins. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

‘What part of illegal don’t you understand?’

Casa San Jose does not proselytize and it serves people regardless of their religion.

But Sister Vanderneck’s motives are rooted in her own faith, represented by Catholic images displayed on the office walls.

There’s an icon Our Lady of Guadalupe, a maternal figure venerated by Latinos; a poster depicting the Holy Family as Latino immigrants; and a picture of St. Joseph, who is venerated as a patron of families and immigrants and is the namesake of Casa San Jose (“St. Joseph House”).

Many of the Latinos helped by Casa San Jose did not enter the country legally. In some cases, the parents lack legal status while the U.S.-born children are citizens.

President Donald Trump made illegal immigration a central issue of his successful campaign and sought to link it to violent crime. His administration has expanded deportations and made clear that all immigrants lacking legal status could face deportation, not just those the Obama administration prioritized in its later years, such as violent criminals and national-security risks.

While the Trump administration is still deliberating whether to retain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which grants legal space for those brought illegally by their parents as young children to the United States, it has rescinded a similar Obama-era protection for parents of legal residents.

Sister Vanderneck gets phone calls criticizing her work. People ask, “What part of illegal in illegal immigrant don’t you understand?”

She said many immigrants come here out of poverty or fear for their safety in unstable homelands in Latin America. Opportunities to migrate legally are limited. She said immigrants shouldn’t be punished for a broken immigration system, nor should families be threatened with separation, as could happen if one or both parents are deported and leave behind children who are U.S.-born citizens..

“The present government is dead-set that we have to get rid of all these illegals because they are a danger to our society,” said Sister Vanderneck. “I am here to say there’s no danger to our society in the people I work with. And if there is we call them on it. We do not support domestic violence perpetrators. We try to teach the women you do not have to live with this. We do not support guys who go out and drink and drive.”

But most often, she said, she deals with hard-working families who have been in this country for years, trying to eke out a living while living in fear of deportation.

She spoke of a Mexican-born couple who lack legal documents, as does their oldest son, who avoided applying for DACA so as not to call attention to himself.

“Mom and Dad work like dogs, as many jobs as they can get,” such as cleaning movie theaters, Sister Vanderneck said. 

“We have to do away with this living here without documentation,” she said. “It is too insecure to raise a child in this environment.”

A day in the life

While Sister Vanderneck has no typical day, here’s how one shaped up earlier this year:

She got up early to take a friend to the airport, then went to morning Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Beechview, another neighborhood with a growing Latino community. (Weekday and Sunday morning Masses at St. Catherine are in English, but Sister Vanderneck has often sung with the small worship team at the parish’s Sunday afternoon Spanish Masses.)

By mid-morning, Sister Vanderneck was at the office, wearing corduroys, slippers and a print blouse with an abstract stained-glass design.

She was talking in Spanish with a client as they stood in the break room at Casa San Jose, surrounded by boxes of files and a few coffee supplies, while volunteer Max Rosenfeld sat at a makeshift desk, busy on his laptop.

They were helping a young, petite woman from Guatemala slowly untangle problems left by the recent deportation of her husband.

The woman was working part-time, cleaning houses, but didn’t earn much, said Sister Vanderneck. The bilingual Mr. Rosenfeld helped her fill out an online application for her U.S.-born children to receive basic medical and food benefits, which as citizens they can obtain. The mother, who lacks legal status, cannot receive such aid. From private funds, the staff was able to provide the mother a little help with a Giant Eagle gift card and a ConnectCard good for 10 bus rides.

“Muchas gracias,” the woman said.

Sister Janice Vanderneck, center, leads a staff meeting in March at Casa San Jose. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

That afternoon, Sister Vanderneck met with the small Casa San Jose staff, sitting at folding tables in the St. Mark’s fellowship hall.

Opening the meeting was another staff member, Sister Valerie Zottola.

“Let’s just take a moment to meditate,” Sister Zottola said, acknowledging the weight of the recent workload.

“Breathe deeply,” she said. “Remember we are in the arms of God now.” After a period of silence, she added: “Lord God, we ask, please open our hearts, so that we may serve our brothers and sisters.”

Sister Zottola coordinates the volunteers who work at Casa San Jose, many of whom signed up after the election. “There’s hardly a day when I don’t have someone inquiring,” she said.

Volunteers do everything from translating for clients at appointments to advocating for immigration reform.

“They say, ‘I can’t just sit by and read stories about what’s happening. I need to do something,’” Sister Zottola said.

(Said new volunteer, Phyllis Schapiro: “I’ve always thought volunteering was important in my life and done quite a bit of it, but it’s the Trump election that really got me interested in the immigrant and refugee crisis.” She’s not religious but finds common cause with the faith-based Casa San Jose: “I just don’t believe one needs religion or a belief in God to truly want to help people.”)

During the Casa San Jose staff meeting, a big topic was the effort to help undocumented immigrants prepare power-of-attorney and custody documents in case they get deported.

Other topics included upcoming events and efforts to have the agency become self-sustaining.

After the meeting, Sister Vanderneck spent the late afternoon with a variety of office tasks. She worked with one volunteer on the agency newsletter.

“OK,” she told another volunteer, “we need to start on our budget.”

Only in passing did she mention, to no one in particular, the toll the work is taking: “Oh, my back is going out,” before returning to task.

A grounding in liberation theology

Sister Vanderneck grew up in Indiana Borough, a place that even now has a minuscule Hispanic population. But Catholic missionary stories fueled a lifelong interest in Latin America. She started studying Spanish at age 12. As a teen, she took every Spanish course the high school offered, then advanced Spanish courses at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Most of her education was in public schools, but in four years of Catholic school, “I absolutely loved the Sisters of St. Joseph,” said Sister Vanderneck. The order — with a long history of community living, service and education — anchors its prayer-fueled, active ministry in the spiritual tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuits.

She joined the order at age 17 and earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching Spanish at Mount Mercy College (present-day Carlow University).

She taught Spanish and religion at Catholic high schools in Shadyside and Ebensburg while working toward a master’s in theology at Duquesne University.

The degree program’s emphasis on social justice “had a tremendous influence on the choices I made with my life,” she said.

“I studied liberation theology and world religions, the social doctrine in the church,” she said.

Liberation theology emerged primarily from 20th century Latin America and calls on the church to side with the poor and politically oppressed. Catholic social teaching includes emphases on human life and dignity and on the needs of the poor and other vulnerable people.

Sister Janice Vanderneck smiles with newlywed Jeimy Sanchez-Ruiz during Sanchez-Ruiz's April wedding reception in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Sister Vanderneck served two stints in the Amazon, helping to teach lay-leadership skills to indigenous peoples and to reflect on “how the gospel can influence their reality,” she said.

“They had to find their own voice and learn their own dignity,” she said. “They had rights to a decent price for their crops or a decent price for their fish and they didn’t have to pay a fortune to the vendor for the coffee and the sugar.”

After returning from Brazil, Sister Vanderneck served as principal and Spanish teacher at a Catholic high school in Miami and later returned to southwestern Pennsylvania to care for her mother in her last years. 

In the early 2000s, Sister Vanderneck began an office at St. Hyacinth and later St. Regis Catholic parishes in Oakland to help new Hispanic residents who had begun turning to the church for help with basic needs.

That eventually led to the 2013 founding of Casa San Jose.

Today the agency has five full-time and three part-time workers, some of them funded by grants. It’s one of six agencies participating in Immigration Services And Connections, which helps Allegheny County immigrants and refugees with legal status to integrate and to gain access to social services and programs.

Casa San Jose’s staff includes a full-time community organizer, Monica Ruiz.

“As social workers, we’re taught to see the big picture,” Ms. Ruiz said. While case-working in previous jobs could help individual problems, “I was tired of putting Band-Aids on broken bones.” She sees this role as a way to advocate more broadly for justice in wider social and governmental structures, such as for immigration reform.

Sister Vanderneck regularly recites a prayer of the 16th century St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose teachings are central for the Sisters of St. Joseph: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my entire will, ... and give me only your love and your grace,” it says.

“Some days I live that better than others,” she said. “Some days I just want a good meal and to put my feet up.”

But, she added: “I do believe that I am where God wants me to be, and as long as I keep following that lead, then the work will be blessed.”

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.


recovering after human trafficking

Juana's 3-year-old daughter wipes her mother's tears as she describes her ordeal since arriving from Nicaragua. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Juana's 3-year-old daughter wipes her mother's tears as she describes her ordeal since arriving from Nicaragua. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Recovering After Human Trafficking

After ordeals of poverty and human trafficking, a Nicaraguan woman gains refuge and recovers her family and faith.

Juana stood patiently in the airport concourse on an April afternoon as she held her youngest daughter, a petite 3-year-old in a watermelon-pink summer dress who slept soundly on her mother’s shoulder following an afternoon meltdown.

Juana combs her 3-year-old daughter's hair before departing their Raleigh, N.C., home for the airport to be reunited with her two older daughters. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

At last, Juana saw her two older daughters, ages 11 and 14, emerge from the silhouetting afternoon light of the arrivals corridor — and into the group embrace she had been dreaming of for more than five years. 

That reunion at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport occurred under far different circumstances than Juana could have imagined in 2012, when she sought to escape the maw of poverty in her native Nicaragua. Instead, she said she found an insidious trap awaiting her in Western Pennsylvania.

“I’ve always hoped to see my daughters, and it has been very painful for us,” she said on the day of their reunion. “I wanted to give them a better life than I had. I didn’t want them to go through hunger.”

Juana is not her real name, which she did not want made public for fear of possible retaliation from her former employer. She was one of hundreds of people each year who have received T visas, a category of legal residency for those who cooperate with law enforcement investigations into human trafficking. Often described as modern slavery, human trafficking is legally defined under federal law as the obtaining of labor through “force, fraud or coercion.”

Trafficking crimes take many forms and often can ensnare U.S.-born citizens.

But immigrants are vulnerable in unique ways, particularly those without legal status or whose visas restrict where they can work. For those living in the shadows, the fear of retaliation or deportation is especially vivid. Even if not physically forced to work, not all can summon the will to walk out the door, as Juana did eventually. And when she did, she embarked on a long ordeal before she found safety and stability.

As her youngest daughter sleeps on her shoulder, Juana is reunited with her two older daughters who arrived at the Raleigh, N.C., airport from Nicaragua. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, some 750 people received T visas as victims of trafficking in 2016, as did 986 of their family members. Similar numbers have received such visas in previous years. Federal agencies opened about 3,800 trafficking-related investigations, and the Department of Justice secured 439 convictions, according to a U.S. State Department report.

In Juana’s case, she was able to bring her older daughters from Nicaragua to join her, her husband and their U.S.-born daughter on the outskirts of Raleigh, N.C., where she had moved in 2016 from Western Pennsylvania.

And so mother and daughters were together again that warm afternoon, patiently waiting by the airport luggage carousel before it eventually discharged the girls’ bags. Accompanying them was a paralegal worker who helped with their case and, with their permission, a Post-Gazette reporter and photographer.

Juana and her three daughters then got in her car for the half-hour ride back to her one-story home outskirts of Raleigh where the suburbs give way to country fields. Her youngest daughter, now fully awake, proudly showed the new arrivals the bedrooms their mother had neatly prepared for them. 

Juana's youngest daughter shows her sister her new room after the latter arrived in Raleigh, N.C. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

In the home, evidence of Juana’s new life was everywhere.

On one wall hung a certificate commemorating her marriage the previous month to the youngest girl’s father, signed by a pastor at their evangelical church. On a table sat a Bible with the newlyweds’ names embroidered in pink script. On another wall is the certificate marking the girl’s dedication at a recent church service.

“We started going to church and getting closer to God,” Juana said, speaking calmly as she sat neatly dressed in the comfortable living room. “We needed more from God.”

At one point in the interview, her husband quietly walked in, dressed in dusty work clothes, to say hello before heading back to his job site. He labors on a roofing crew, as Juana often does as well.

The couple and their colleagues previously had gone back and forth from job sites in the Pittsburgh and Raleigh areas. Eventually they decided to settle permanently in Raleigh, which they liked because there was less cold and more work available.

Juana, now 34, was born in the port city of Bluefields, Nicaragua. She had the two older daughters with a previous domestic partner. The couple broke up when the youngest was 1, and Juana went to work at a water-packaging plant. After it closed, with few jobs available in Bluefields, she headed to the capital of Managua in search of work, bringing her youngest daughter while her mother cared for the older girl.

Juana said she worked for a year at a casino hotel and that its owner then offered her a job at another hotel he owned in Western Pennsylvania. He arranged her passport and student visa and paid for her airfare, she said.

“He told me I would be able to work and attend school,” studying computers and English, she said. But she “never got to do what he offered.”

She said she started out as one of three people on staff, but within a month the other two were fired or left.

Juana said she was required to work around the clock. She cut the grass, cleaned the rooms and staffed the desk, sleeping on a sofa in the office and waking up whenever customers came in. The hotel rented rooms by the hour for trysts, which meant that whenever customers left, she had to make up the room immediately for the next customers.

When she began to complain that she needed more sleep, she said, the owner sent someone to check on her to make sure she she stayed in the office, available when needed.

“The black circles under my eyes, I owe to my employer,” she said. The worst days were the weekends, with round-the-clock business. Early in the workweek she could catch up some on her sleep.

She was promised pay of $225 a week, which would be below minimum wage even for a 40-hour week.

“In the beginning that was fine, because in Nicaragua I would never be able to earn that amount,” she said. But she said the owner only paid her $100 a week, promising he was saving the rest for her upon returning to Nicaragua.

“My employer tricked me, because he brought me here to work hard,” she said.

One day a regular customer commented that she must be earning a lot of money because whenever he came to the hotel, she was working. When she told him what she was earning, he told her she was being cheated.

But the owner also had told her to use an alias because she wasn’t supposed to be working on a student visa, so she was afraid to go to police.

Eventually she demanded a raise. At that point, she said, her boss told her she “needed to work there until I paid off my debt.” She said the owner told her with the amount he paid for her visa, passport and plane fare, “even working my whole life there, I would never be able to pay off what he invested.”

Not knowing how much things cost, it was only after she called a friend in Florida that she learned she had more than worked off her debt.

Juana decided to leave the hotel and try to find a job elsewhere. But finding work while living in the shadows — lacking even her visa and passport, which her employer kept — proved difficult, she said. She teared up in recounting that for a time, she had to work as an escort to survive.

After a couple of months, she met up with a group of Latinos who were working on a roofing crew. They offered her work cleaning up trash after roofing jobs.

“I didn’t have anything to lose.”

She began working on the roofing crew. The crew included a man, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, who eventually would become her husband. 

She became pregnant with her third daughter, and that’s when she began to come out from the legal shadows, seeking medical care for her baby. But doing so was difficult due to a lack of papers.

A friend urged her to contact a legal-aid organization, whose workers put a name to what she had experienced: human trafficking.

Under a 2000 federal law, human trafficking includes “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

As she applied for the T visa, Juana said she spoke extensively with federal agents about her case. She doesn’t know if her former employer was ever prosecuted, but she received the T visa, which enables her to live legally in the United States and also to bring her daughters here.

Spokespersons for the Pittsburgh branches of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation said they have not investigated a case that matches the description of this case, although it’s possible a different office did and that the case was not prosecuted. But receiving the visa would have required proof of cooperation. Because there’s no record of prosecution, the hotel is not being described here in specific terms.

Today, Juana wonders how she could have managed without receiving legal help and medical coverage, given the post-partum depression she experienced.

She hopes Americans realize that human trafficking happens in their midst.

“Not everybody has the same luck I had,” she said.

On the wall in her living room hangs a large poster quoting the biblical book of I Corinthians: “There are three things that last: Faith, Hope and Love. And the greatest of these is Love.”

The familiar verse holds deep meaning for Juana. “I prayed a lot to God. If [my prayers] weren’t answered, I wouldn’t be here now.” 

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.


Spanish-language churches growing

Casta Florido of Bethel Park worships at Iglesia Cristiana Sion in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Casta Florido of Bethel Park worships at Iglesia Cristiana Sion in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Spanish-language churches growing

As a vocal trio sang a guitar-led chorus, people lined up by the dozens down the center aisle for a ritual anointing of oil by the Rev. Fernando Torres during a Sunday afternoon Spanish Mass at St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Beechview.

“It’s for healing the body, also the spirit,” said Father Torres, a parochial vicar at St. Catherine.

In the nearby neighborhood of Brookline on another Sunday, worshipers at Iglesia Cristiana Sion raised their hands, closed their eyes, sang and prayed in Spanish — and sometimes in unknown tongues.

Like the Latino community in Pittsburgh as a whole, the ranks of churches offering services in Spanish are small but growing.

Mia Galilea Ulloa, 3, of Gibsonia, carries a candle in December during a procession on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe at St. Paul Cathedral. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Carlos Florido of Bethel Park worships at Iglesia Cristiana Sion in Brookline. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

“This has become home away from home where they can come and they can hear their language, know that their brothers and sisters sitting next to them know what they have experienced,” said Gigi D’Amico, coordinator for Hispanic ministry at St. Catherine and a bilingual native of Puerto Rico. “The Hispanic community is very strong in their faith. To be able to come and experience their faith in the way that is experienced in their home, versus an English version of it, with their traditions and the richness of their language and music is very meaningful.”

There are about five parishes in the six-county Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh with Spanish Masses. That may be tiny compared to many other dioceses around the country, but the Latino presence has prompted the diocese to appoint its first coordinator of Hispanic ministry, Jorge Vela.

Catholic traditions are deeply embedded in Latin American culture, which provides a launching point for helping raise new generations of Catholics, he said..

“I will take advantage of that tradition, but I will also help the parents to live it,” said Mr. Vela. “I want to give it a good reason, not just tradition. Give the faith because you are living it.”

For years, St. Regis Parish in Oakland has offered Masses in Spanish. It was joined by Spanish Masses at St. Catherine with the growth of the Latino in the city’s southern neighborhoods, although people come from a wide radius, said Father Torres.

One thing widely shared at Hispanic churches is a hope for immigration reform that would enable many of their faithful to attain legal status.

Frank Rondon, pastor at Iglesia Cristiana Sion, said he saw opposite trends unfolding in the weeks after the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Among regular attendees, “I noticed some people who were so afraid, they didn’t come to church,” he said. “And some people who never went to church were so afraid, they came to church.”

Mr. Rondon said he can understand the anxieties of those who lack legal residency status here. Yet he believes media reports about looming immigration roundups aggravated people’s fears and he urges those at his evangelical Protestant congregation to pray for and expect God’s protection.

Frank Rondon, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Sion in Brookline, leads the congregation in worship. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

“I'm not saying we have to disconnect from the media but we cannot put such a big weight on [how the media] affects our lives,” he said, citing a biblical text: “Cursed be the man who puts his trust in man, ... but he who trusts the Lord will never be forsaken.”

Iglesia Cristiana Sion is in Brookline, one of the Pittsburgh neighborhoods drawing a growing number of Latino immigrants. It’s one of a small but growing number of congregations of various Christian denominations offering services in Spanish. It purchased its building in 2015 from a previous church that was closing its doors and, based on a longstanding relationship with Sion, offered to sell the building on favorable terms.

“In our church we have not had one single deportation,” he said. “People are getting papers. God is helping us out, the church is growing. What we've experienced can only be justified by the favor of the Lord. We are the first Hispanic church in Pittsburgh to own their facility.”

He said he’s encouraged to see some immigrants get positive results at immigration court hearings, and the crisis is prompting people to “make the right decisions,” he said. For example, he’s performed weddings for couples who faced immigration judges who didn’t view their cohabitation as a sign of long-term stability.

“In some cases you’re just doing this because the judge told you to,” said Mr. Rondon. But it’s a “step in the right direction.”

Like many other evangelical Protestant ministers, Mr. Rondon likes many things about the Trump administration, including the arrivals of conservative Christians Mike Pence to the vice presidency and Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.

But Mr. Rondon, who came to this country under legal visas from Venezuela before eventually gaining citizenship, hopes Mr. Trump finds a way to both reform immigration to use less divisive racial rhetoric.

“We believe the kingdom of God is a very diverse place of every tribe, race, nation and tongue,” he said. “When we hear this rhetoric, that is so disheartening. ... I think we make this country better.”

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.



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