Advocate: Mary Gundrum ’70
Mary Gundrum ’70 loves looking at the pictures children scribble on her office chalkboard: flowers, the sun, a house, stick figures holding hands. But the happy sketches belie the darker story of what brings these children to Gundrum’s door: perilous journeys across Central America, the histories of abuse and violence that spurred them to flee their homes, often alone, in search of a better life in the United States.
Gundrum is the director of the Immigrant Children’s Justice Clinic at Florida International University’s College of Law in Miami, where she and her law students advocate on behalf of undocumented and unaccompanied children who were abused, abandoned or neglected by their families. Their goal: to win special immigrant juvenile status, which paves the way for the children to eventually apply for a green card so they may permanently stay in the United States. The kids often live with an aunt, uncle or cousin who is already here. With Gundrum’s help, those relatives can win permanent custody.
“It means the world to these kids because if they get denied, they get deported and sometimes sent back to bad situations,” she explains.
Most times the children are running away from bad family situations. But often, what adds to their motivation to flee is gang violence. “There are huge gangs in Central America; they’re everywhere. They follow the kids to school and they will try to pressure them to join the gangs. They threaten them or threaten to kill their parents,” Gundrum says. Sometimes, they’re more than threats: One 11-year-old girl saw her mother shot 50 times by gang members in front of her home.
Gundrum’s clients range in age from 5 to 17; most are teenagers from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. “These kids jumped buses, trucks or trains to get here,” she says. “A lot of them have had really scary journeys.”
With help from a few law students, Gundrum represents more than 60 cases a year, all pro bono. But there are more cases than she can possibly handle. Thousands of immigrant children are in U.S. custody. Winning has become an uphill battle.
“We used to win all the time, but the judges have changed over time, and now we lose quite a bit,” she says. “These judges hold the kids’ lives in their hands.”
The work is emotionally grueling, but every happy ending makes it worth it. “The days when we do win the cases, you should see the expressions on the faces of those kids — it’s like they were handed an Academy Award,” Gundrum says. “Their lives are going to completely change direction because we won that case for them.”
Gundrum has spent her career working for those in need: from Wisconsin to New York to Florida, she has fought for the rights of immigrant workers, inmates in overcrowded jails, people with developmental disabilities, women and people of color facing discrimination, and others. “I feel blessed that I can help people and do work that is meaningful,” she says.
Studying sociology at Alverno ignited Gundrum’s passion for social justice. Discovering the impact she could have is what inspired her to go to law school.
“I hope that Alverno students will seize the opportunity to learn as much as they can and be open, just like I hope my law students are open, to the needs of those who are poor,” she says. “I hope they’ll be just as inspired as I was by the teachers at Alverno and carry that on to their work.”
Advocates in Action
Alverno alums like Gundrum dedicate their careers to social justice causes. Click the names below to read their stories of advocacy, and if you know of an Alverno alum who is working on behalf of others, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the spring/summer 2019 issue of Alverno Magazine.