One Nation – Katie McCoy ’15

Woman standing in front of fence.
St Olaf’s graduate Katie McCoy of Harlingen, Texas in Hope Park, downtown Brownsville next to the border fence with Mexico. (Bob Daemmrich/Polaris)

From St. Olaf College’s founding by Norwegian immigrants to today’s “Dreamers,” the college’s commitment to immigrants from all nations is reinforced by its mission. In the most recent issue of St. Olaf Magazine, alumni and students share their personal immigration stories in the hope that Oles will continue to work alongside neighbors, friends, and strangers to welcome all voices and experiences to America. This is one story from that series.

Katie McCoy first learned of the challenges of immigration law while interning with Justice for Our Neighbors, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization in Iowa, during the summer between her second and third years at St. Olaf.

“I learned how complex the laws are, and the innumerable ways they fail people who so desperately need relief or need access to staying in the United States,” she says. “Once I saw how underserved immigrant populations are and how great the need was, I couldn’t walk away.”

Additional experiences at St. Olaf — volunteering on behalf of immigrants and refugees while studying abroad in Argentina, completing a political science senior capstone project on citizenship and immigration — helped turn McCoy’s eye toward immigration policy as a way to affect change. But after a year with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service in Washington, D.C., as an advocacy fellow working within federal agencies, she was disillusioned. “A general fear of refugees was the overwhelming climate, and I couldn’t see the impact of any of the work I was doing,” she says.

“I learned how complex the laws are, and the innumerable ways they fail people who so desperately need relief or need access to staying in the United States. Once I saw how underserved immigrant populations are and how great the need was, I couldn’t walk away.”

McCoy shifted her focus once again to immigration law, and today is a paralegal with the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR), a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants and asylum seekers detained by the U.S. government. She assists attorneys who work for ProBAR’s Children’s Project, which serves unaccompanied children who are detained in the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas.

“These children travel from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico, often fleeing violence or domestic abuse,” McCoy says. “They come without a parent or guardian, or they’ve been separated during the journey.”

McCoy and her coworkers shepherd the children through the legal system, helping them understand and access their rights and representing them in court cases determining whether or not they can stay in the United States.

“Each of these cases takes a very long time, and being able to accompany children through the process — letting them know that someone is listening to their needs and fighting for them to get what they want in life — has been really impactful for me,” McCoy says. “I can see the work that needs to be done, one person at a time.”