June 30, 2023 — Rochelle Garza '13, former Democratic nominee for Texas Attorney General and Texas Civil Rights Project President, was sworn in this spring as one of the newest members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Garza was appointed as a Commissioner by President Joe Biden, an honor she says is "absolutely incredible."
"It's really an honor of a lifetime to be appointed," said Garza, a civil rights attorney and Brownsville, Texas native. "On a personal level, I think a lot about my grandmother who gave birth to 13 kids and everything that she had to go through in order to give these kinds of opportunities — or the possibility of this kind of opportunity — to her children and grandchildren."
Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley influenced Garza's perspective on immigration, civil rights, and advocacy, propelling her toward a career focused on "us[ing] the law to make sure that powerful people treat [her] clients fairly and recognize everyone's humanity." For Garza, her life experiences illuminated the law as a tool that can "either build or destroy."
"I very much want to build, to build a society or a state or country that really contemplates every single person and recognizes their humanity, recognizes their civil rights," Garza said.
Established in 1957, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is a bipartisan, independent agency "inform[ing] the development of national civil rights policy and enhanc[ing] enforcement of federal civil rights laws." The Commission is tasked with evaluating the status of civil rights issues across the country and informing the U.S. Congress and the President, according to Garza. Currently, the Commission is working on a report on the federal response to anti-Asian racism in the wake of COVID-19, she said.
"Reports like that are important for us to understand the moment that we're in and the impact on the civil rights of people across this country," Garza said.
Learning the power of advocacy
"Growing up in a border community is a really unique and powerful experience," according to Garza.
Growing up, Garza remembers helping her family load empty bottles of Topo Chico into yellow plastic crates and then crossing the border to Matamoros, Mexico to exchange the empty bottles for filled ones. Along the way, she saw someone "wading into the waters below" and having a conversation with her parents about "the difference between our family that was sitting on this bridge and this man that was crossing into the water into the United States."
"It really was very clear to me that it was just by virtue of where I was born," she said. "It's by virtue of where this person was born. Our entire lives and opportunities are just shaped based on which side of that river we were born on."
More than this, having an older brother with disabilities impacted the way Garza "looked at what it means to be an attorney."
"For me, advocacy very much started at home," she said. From seeing her parents "fight hard" to ensure her brother Robby received the care he needed or witnessing her mother testify against a bill in Austin that would have been harmful to families like theirs, Garza said she ultimately learned that advocacy is simply "making sure that we're taking care of each other."
Garza's advocacy was on nationwide display in 2017 in Garza v. Hargan, a case in which Garza was the guardian for Jane Doe, a teenager who fled violence in Central America for the safety of the U.S. and learned she was pregnant while in immigration detention. Jane was denied her abortion decision and prevented from leaving the detention center by the federal government. Garza's work on this case led to the "Garza Notice," a federal requirement for teens in immigration detention to have control over their reproductive health care choices.
"That is the power that one individual has – standing up for their civil rights and doing so in community with others, with attorneys and advocates. There were a lot of non-attorneys that were involved in that case as well; it took an effort to really stand up for this young person's rights," Garza said. "That's what motivates me at the end of the day — seeing the power that we have as individuals, even when we are vulnerable. We can still make a lasting change."
Garza is also President of a state-wide nonprofit, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP). Using the tools of advocacy and litigation to advance Texans' civil rights, Garza is furthering her work across the state. As President, Garza said her vision is to "continue building out [TCRP's] role as a watchdog for civil rights in the state and to become a changemaker throughout the state."
"We're at a critical moment in Texas. Our state legislature continues to assault basic civil rights, from further criminalizing voting to empowering vigilantes to enforce federal immigration law to undermining the power of democratically elected local officials and prosecutors that refuse to criminalize health care," Garza said. "We need to use every single tool that we have in our toolbox to mitigate the negative impacts of all of these bills and fight for the change that we need. As Texans, we know that it doesn't just impact us, it impacts the rest of the country."
During the 2023 Texas Legislative session, TCRP worked alongside community partners, representatives, and other organizations to track more than 700 bills that impacted TCRP’s priority areas of voting rights, criminal injustice, and border and immigration issues.
"Texans can't wait for change to come," said Garza. "We have to be proactive."
Becoming a civil rights attorney
In the decade since Garza graduated from the University of Houston Law Center, she worked on a case that brought about the "Garza Notice," ran a competitive campaign against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and was tapped to lead the Texas Civil Rights Project and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Looking back at her legal education at UH Law Center, Garza highlights two notable aspects: the negotiation class she took and her participation in student organizations.
"The thing about UH that I really enjoyed were the practical skills courses," said Garza. The negotiation class Garza took as an elective has been "the most useful course" in her daily life, she said.
"The courses that I think a lot about are the ones that gave me the tools to navigate being an attorney, whether that was in court, on a family law case, a mediation, or going up against the Department of Justice in the Jane Doe case," Garza said. “The practical skills I learned at UH really prepared me for the work that I've done subsequently."
For students interested in pursuing civil rights law, Garza recommends getting "practical experience" in the courtroom. Direct representation of individuals in court, in any issue area, "gives you a better understanding of the systemic issues in order to practice civil rights law."
"When you have that practical experience of being in a courtroom and representing a person and understanding how the law has impacted them and their lives, that gives you a lot of groundwork for understanding the bigger picture and how we can make systemic changes to protect people's civil rights," Garza said.
For more news on the University of Houston’s Law Center’s alumni, click here.
4170 Martin Luther King Blvd
Houston, TX 77204-6060
713-743-2094 Legal Clinics