New Land. New Language. New Life

Immigration is a polarizing issue in the 2024 elections in the United States. Fifty-two percent of Americans believe that an “invasion” is occurring at the southern border. Realistically, no one really wants to migrate and leave their home. Circumstances have forced their egress. Most migrants are seeking a way-out of poverty, a better future for their children, the rights and freedoms that are not offered in their country, and an escape from violent conditions. They are people struggling to pursue safety and happiness. 

The Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose (DSMSJ) listen to the call of Scripture (Leviticus 19-33-34) and take to heart their mission to serve the young, the poor, and the vulnerable. In 2002, Sister Ann Ronin, OP started the Las Casas – English as a Second Language program with three students.  Twenty-two years later, under the leadership of Dana Neufeld, it has 300 students and three Sisters overseeing and teaching. 

Las Casas opens its doors to adults from all parts of the world with any language and educational background. Through this ministry the Dominican Sisters proclaim Jesus Christ through educating and promoting justice and peace. They seek to show how the Gospel remains relevant to the times and bless the traveler and the foreigner.  However, Las Casas is a non-religious organization. The leadership and staff merely desire to create a safe, welcoming place for adults to learn beginning English. The all-volunteer teacher staff is spiritually diverse. They are Jewish, Mormon, non-religious, Atheist, individuals motivated by generosity and love, and Catholic. They are unified by their mission to empower students to achieve their personal, educational, and vocational goals and build a brighter future for themselves and their families.

Last school year, Las Casas provided 89 evening sessions over 33 weeks of English classes. They offer five levels: 

  • Introduction
  • Beginning Low
  • Beginning High 
  • Intermediate Low
  • Intermediate High 

Students are assessed for the appropriate class and may take as long as necessary to complete each class. They must demonstrate competency to move to the next level. While not all students complete Intermediate High due to constraints or the demands of life, those who do graduate are encouraged to continue their English studies at a local community college. This school year, 10 students were recommended for college. 

Las Casas is wonderful because of the people. The 50 teachers and small staff are focused on creating a happy and helpful learning environment for the students. Because of this kindness and care, the students’ lives are changed. They came to a new land. They are receiving the gift of a new language. And anecdote after anecdote tells us that most end up with a new life. 

Each student has a story that they may share at their discretion. Most Las Casas students come from Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador. They come for a better life for themselves or their family. Many seek jobs right away so they can send money back to their families. On average students have lived in the U.S. for seven years before coming to Las Casas, but some start after as few as two weeks in the country. They need English for so many reasons:

  • To get a job
  • To be promoted in a job
  • Speak to doctors 
  • Speak to children’s teachers

People find Las Casas through word of mouth. The organization doesn’t advertise. The new students are often amazed by the generosity of heart offered by the teachers and staff. Matthew Stewart, an Intermediate High teacher, was at a gathering of Las Casas’ students. He spoke to them and ended by saying “We are happy that you’re here!” in English and then in Spanish. In response, the room erupted into applause. Matthew was speechless. He was touched by the gratitude and joy students expressed at being welcomed and wanted in the Las Casas community.

In that community, the teachers and students become friends.  Students become colleagues and carpoolers. After exiting the program some have come back to volunteer as program assistants. Some student’s children, who grew up learning English in school, volunteer in another classroom while their parents are learning. When Dana Neufeld became the Program Director, her former colleague shared that he learned English at Las Casas when he first came to America. Soon he became a committed volunteer. 

It’s not just about learning English; Las Casas students desperately want to connect with and be productive members of their community. In response, Las Casas now provides access to community resources. In April 2024, they held their third community fair with twenty local organizations offering services in:

  • Citizenship 
  • Housing and food
  • Legal and immigration help
  • Health and menthol health services
  • Education and more

Students are seeking a path to a better life. Their reasons for migrating and their journey from their homeland is likely to be filled with traumatic memories. Gentleness, skilled help, and smiles soothe a difficult past and bring hope for the future. This is part of Las Casas DNA. 

When the students leave Las Casas, most experience transformation. Learning English serves as the key to a better life. It opens the door to freedom and improved quality of life. The students have access to more, higher paying jobs and more educational choices. They can now more easily go see a doctor or talk with their child’s teacher with confidence. They can read road and airport signs and communicate with more people. For those who have experienced Las Casas, life is not the same. 

The immigrant communities and the people who serve them are used to hearing bad news about immigration policy and border control. But Las Casas is an “Oasis of joy and gratitude.” The students and teachers who live in this community experience a different world. They care for one another. Students freely receive, take comfort, and feel gratitude for the opportunity to learn a language that is so critical to their survival. Teachers freely give, experience happiness as they provide impactful help, and connect with people who want to connect and give back. For students and staff alike, Las Casas is marked by Joy.