Sister Janice Vanderneck. Photo courtesy of Casa San Jose.

“Oh boy. Wow. It’s really looking very bleak right now,” says Sister Janice Vanderneck regarding the current climate for Latinos with the Trump administration’s stance on immigration. “Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] can just keep picking up people.”

Sister Janice is on the front line of helping Pittsburgh’s Latino families maneuver the minefield of today’s changing immigration policies, as well as connect with jobs and services they may need. In 2013, she founded the Casa San Jose (CSJ) organization with a mission to serve the region’s Latinos with a community center that advocates for and empowers them by promoting integration and self-sufficiency.

She is a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, and CSJ is an outreach program of the religious order. “They told me to go ahead and do this work, and that I didn’t have to earn a salary to do it. That’s what I’ve been doing.”

In May, she was awarded the 2017 Mayor Bob O’Connor Neighborhood Leader Award from the Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group (PCRG).

CSJ has helped residents from more than 31 zip codes in the region. “We serve mostly monolingual Spanish speakers,” Sister Janice explains. For new arrivals, as well as those who have been here for years, CSJ can assist in all types of situations, including helping residents who have been trafficked for cheap labor gain legal status, and finding health care for recent immigrants.

“Her compassionate persistence and genuine nature has earned her the trust of Latinos, community leaders and especially Mayor Bill Peduto,” says Julian Asenjo, ISAC (Immigrant Services and Connections) social services coordinator for Casa San Jose.

“(Sister Janice) has participated in most every march for immigrant and economic justice we’ve had here in Pittsburgh, ” he continues. “She is an effective coalition-builder, and is tireless in her advocacy for the many civil rights, economic justice, housing and immigration challenges this population faces. Pittsburgh would be a much less welcoming place without her.”

“The Hispanic population has been very frightened and anxious ever since January 20th and ensuing Executive orders,” says Sister Janice. “ICE agents have been in the streets, in neighborhoods and at workplaces taking people. Every week or every couple of days we hear of something.” When that happens, “we only have only a few hours to try and get a person out on bond before they are shipped out of the area,” she explains.

Casa San Jose has instituted a Rapid Response Team in partnership with a Spanish-speaking employee of the Community Justice Project, volunteer lawyers and the ACLU. Sister Janice says that in most cases the detained people have no criminal record. The dilemma is that it’s often a father and breadwinner who is deported, leaving a woman and sometimes young children behind scrambling to find work, food and shelter. Some people detained have DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and some children of their clients were born here. Others have visas, or have overstayed visas and are seeking asylum. She adds, “While you’re seeking asylum, you have no status, but can’t be deported if you have a case in immigration court until that case is decided.”

CSJ runs on a shoestring budget so donations are needed, adding that community awards are gratifying since they’re an acknowledgment of their good work. The publicity has helped them gain volunteers. “They know that we’re serving undocumented people. That’s not a hidden message,” she says. 

The PCRG award was inspired by the work Sister Janice does as an activist. “She focuses on what her community needs,” says Sarah Slater, PCRG’s Program Coordinator for Land Use. “The award is selected by the [Councilman Corey] O’Connor Family. They were inspired by what she does and wanted to recognize her effort and energy.”

Deborah Knox writes about Pittsburgh’s civic life, grounded in her experience with architects, engineers and urban planners. She works for Informing Design and is part of the team.