Attorney Rochelle Garza says she’s grown tired of watching regressive and harmful laws eat away at her state, targeting Texas’ most vulnerable communities. There have been long stretches where she goes to bed angry and wakes up angry. But one day she decided she was going to funnel her rage toward a new goal: becoming attorney general.
In reporting about her campaign as she vies to be the Democratic nominee for the Texas attorney general race in November, Garza is often referred to as a “former ACLU attorney.” But long before her work with the organization, the Rio Grande Valley resident was an immigration attorney who often represented unaccompanied immigrant minors in federal custody. In 2017, she went toe-to-toe with the federal government, suing the Trump administration over its refusal to allow a Central American teen in custody access to abortion care. She eventually won, and it led to the “Garza Notice,” which requires that the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which detains unaccompanied immigrant minors, make them aware of their right to abortion without retaliation and obstruction.
Garza is now making headlines for her pro-choice platform in a state that has implemented some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country that will soon see the end of Roe v. Wade, the case that legalized abortion in the U.S. Garza is in the democratic runoff for attorney general against former Galveston, Texas, Mayor Joe Jaworski. Come election day May 24, she will learn her position in what is largely considered to be one of the most important races for Texas Democrats, likely pitting her against current Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. It won’t be the first time Garza has battled Paxton. Texas’ AG filed a brief in response to Garza’s lawsuit against the Trump administration, arguing that immigrants have no constitutional right to abortion.
Garza told Prism that Texans deserve better than Paxton, who, shortly after taking office in 2015, was indicted for felony securities fraud charges. In 2020, the FBI began investigating him over claims by eight former deputies that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor, the Texas Tribune reported. (After the deputies filed the complaint against Paxton, they were either fired or pushed to leave the agency. Two filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton, which he is attempting to get thrown out with the help of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.)
It’s a critical time for the state of Texas, and Garza says she feels the weight of it every day. In the weeks leading up to her runoff election, she spoke to Prism about how growing up in South Texas shaped her politics, the role a progressive attorney general could play in combating abortion criminalization, and the importance of learning to “brush off the haters” as a Latina in one of Texas’ most important races. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Tina Vasquez: You’re not just a Tejana; you’re a Tejana from South Texas. Your home has a very particular geopolitical and cultural context. How did growing up in this region of Texas shape your politics and your work?
Rochelle Garza: You’re right. South Texas is a very particular place; it’s why I’ve always identified as a fronterista. In South Texas, we live on the border between these two countries, these two languages, and these two cultures. I think it’s the best of both worlds. My worldview has been shaped by growing up in this region where we have family on both sides and where communities on both sides of the border rely on each other socially and economically. This shaped how I understand the world—and so did growing up in a working family. My parents were both public school teachers. My dad went from being a poor farmer—one of 13 children—to being a teacher, a lawyer, and then a judge. I also grew up with a sibling with disabilities, and from an early age, I understood that not everyone has the same opportunities; not everyone is treated with dignity and respect. I’ve always understood how important it is to help advocate for people.
Vasquez: A lot of eyes are on Texas right now because of some crucial races, and because of how many Latinas are running for office. You have a lot in common with Jessica Cisneros, who is running against conservative Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas’ 28th Congressional District. You’re both young progressive Latina attorneys from South Texas running on pro-choice platforms against regressive men who have been in their roles for a long time. Is this a sign that Latinas can lead Texas in a more progressive direction?
Garza: I think what you’re seeing is people who come from the community and understand the community very well, which means they know how to address the needs of the community. South Texas has high rates of uninsured folks. We have high poverty rates. We have serious issues that have been pervasive for decades, but we are also a community that is resilient and built on love and support. I think that’s why you’re seeing candidates like myself come forward. I never thought I would run for office, but I’m frankly tired of seeing Texans not getting what they need. It’s frustrating to have leadership that just doesn’t care—and this includes not just reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy, but all of the things that shape a person’s life and family. These are all things that are not being addressed at all by leadership in the state.
Vasquez: Folks in the reproductive health, rights, and justice world have a particular familiarity with you. In Azar v. Garza, you represented Jane Doe, one of several Central American teens in ORR custody that the federal government actively tried to block from having an abortion. Before this case, were reproductive justice issues part of your work?
Garza: I describe myself as a civil rights lawyer, and I use that phrase in a really broad sense because I have practiced immigration law, family law, criminal defense, and constitutional law. I started my career as an immigration lawyer working with kids who fled violence in Central America. In that context, it wasn’t just immigration law that I was practicing; it was also family law. When you’re working with families, there are so many overlapping issues, and reproductive rights is one. Before I took on the Jane Doe case, there were a number of children I saw in [federal] facilities who needed abortion care. I represented young people who had been sex-trafficked and labor-trafficked. Doing this kind of work has given me an education about how laws intersect to harm people, and how laws can be used to better people’s lives.
Vasquez: As we enter into a post-Roe world, it feels meaningful that candidates like you are running on a pro-choice platform. Many elected officials and Democrats running for office still won’t even use the word “abortion,” and it’s really wild that the party continues to embrace anti-choice Democrats. Talk to me about why reproductive health, rights, and justice are such a focus for you.
Garza: There’s nothing more fundamental than having control over your own body. I was nine weeks pregnant when the six-week abortion ban came into effect in Texas. I was really worried about my own health and my ability to access health care because of the law and all of the confusion it caused. Obviously, things have become more extreme because of the Roe news. At the end of the day, there is nothing more fundamental than being able to make decisions about your own body. To take away this right is to deny a person’s humanity. I’ve decided to be vocal about abortion rights because I don’t want my daughter to grow up in a state or a country where she has fewer rights than I did. That’s not the future I want for her, and that’s not the future a vast majority of Texans want for their children. Seventy-eight percent of Texans believe that abortion should be legal in some form. I think what everyone ultimately recognizes is that this is a health care issue. People have abortions for different reasons; sometimes it’s medically necessary. Most Texans think it’s unfair that the state can force a decision on a person regarding what they can do with their own body.
When I talk about abortion and reproductive freedom on the campaign trail, I make it very clear that taking away the right to abortion is a civil rights issue—and it will affect other civil rights, like access to contraception. This is not a game. We are talking about issues that are foundational to our freedom and ability to be fully realized human beings.
Vasquez: Abortion access in Texas has been under constant threat. But the Roe news coupled with Texas’ trigger law means Texans are headed into the absolute worst case scenario. What kind of role could a progressive attorney general play here?
Garza: State attorney generals are going to be one of the last lines of defense for abortion once Roe falls. Once Roe falls, it is going to go back to the states, and in states like Texas that have a trigger law, we’re going to see more people criminalized, and the attorney general is going to have more power to collect civil penalties. Having a good AG who is going to stand up for civil rights is going to be incredibly important because your state attorney general is your attorney as a citizen of your state. The attorney general is the attorney for the people. It’s not a position that is supposed to support the governor, the lieutenant governor, or even the legislature when they are making unconstitutional laws. The AG is supposed to stand up for the citizens of Texas, for the Texas constitution, and for the U.S. constitution. We are in a critical moment, and Texans cannot have [Texas Attorney General] Paxton in this position unless they want things to get worse.
Vasquez: After the Roe news, I thought a lot about Lizelle Herrera, the Latina from South Texas who was recently criminalized for an alleged self-managed abortion. There appears to be a link between restrictive abortion laws and increases in the number of people who self-manage—and we know this will lead to an increase in criminalization, especially in states like Texas. Can you help people understand the role an attorney general can play when it comes to abortion criminalization?
Garza: What we saw happen to Lizelle Herrera in South Texas was really alarming. There is a clear exception under criminal statute that you cannot prosecute someone for having an abortion. You cannot charge them with murder, and yet we had a district attorney who presented this to the grand jury and got an indictment against this young woman. Obviously, it got dismissed; whether or not it’s still on her record is another question. We should not criminalize people for terminating their pregnancies, period. As attorney general, I want to have a fully funded civil rights division where we have units that address specific issues, and I want to have a reproductive rights unit that will address situations like this. The attorney general can play a key role in helping to ensure that things like this never happen, but if they do, they can provide important support when it’s needed.
Vasquez: I report on immigration and reproductive justice, which means I’m in touch with people in Texas quite a bit. It’s clear Texans are willing to continue fighting like hell for people who need abortion care, for trans kids, for immigrants, and for everyone else under attack. But I also sense that people are so tired of fighting and so tired of feeling like everything is on fire all of the time. How do you feel the weight of this moment; are you tired? Are you hopeful?
Garza: I am energized. I’m energized by my anger, really. It’s been years. I feel like my entire legal career has been about fighting a lot of regressive actions and policies. I go to sleep angry, and I wake up angry; it fuels my tenacity and energy for the day. This is an important time in our history—not just in Texas, but across the country. I know that folks are tired. I’ve been there. Over the years, I’ve been so tired, fighting for everyday Texans and representing families that were separated at the border. It’s OK to feel tired, but we can’t relent. We have a vision for a better Texas—one that makes room for everyone.
It’s time that we start electing people who espouse our values and actually care about making things better instead of harming folks. We need to make sure we have Medicaid expansion. We need to make sure that people don’t have their wages stolen and can live in safe and clean environments. We need to protect bodily autonomy. These are all things that everyday Texans can agree on, but we have state leadership that likes to distract the public while they consolidate their own power. They’re not looking out for us.
Vasquez: Over the last several years, Black activists and organizers have sparked important conversations about policing, unjust laws, and the criminalization of communities of color. You’re a civil rights attorney running to be the top law enforcement officer in the state of Texas. How are you thinking about the vast differences between these two roles?
Garza: My legal career hasn’t just been built on fighting for families, but working with impacted communities and crafting solutions that they know are best. That’s what I bring to the table; I understand how to work in coalition. Being the people’s attorney means working with and for the people. We have to craft solutions alongside the community because the only way to address issues in a meaningful way is to work directly with the impacted people and be in conversation with them.
Vasquez: You’ve been in the spotlight before because of your work representing immigrants, but you could potentially be Texas’ first Latina attorney general. We know that women of color are more scrutinized. Do you expect attacks on your identity or efforts to diminish or demean your work?
Garza: I expect it, but I don’t know if there’s any way to be ready for it. Look, Texas is so different from what it’s made out to be. Our state is 60% people of color; it’s nearly 40% Latino. If we’re going to improve the lives of people, we need to start electing folks that understand our lived experiences. I am a Latina from the border. I am a fifth-generation Texan. I speak Spanish, and I’m a new mom, and I’m a working person. I understand what we’re going through, and I want to help address the issues that impact everyday folks.
State leadership loves to engage in divisive politics, and they may try to pull me into it, but I know it’s just a distraction—and I will treat it that way. I’m interested in focusing on what’s actually important, and I know others are too. We’re seeing so many Latinas run for office, including Latinas like me from rural communities whose voices need to be heard. I know people have been saying that Texas will turn blue, but that will only happen when we have qualified representation. I’m confident we’re going to see some real shifts and changes in Texas, and for those of us who are elected to make these changes, we’re just going to have to brush off the haters.