The Strongest Advocate
By Tatiana Sanchez
Mirelle Raza ’15 is fresh out of law school and working as a deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice. She credits a women’s and gender studies course for inspiring her to advocate for vulnerable people.
As they huddled in a San Diego hotel room during a work trip last month, Mirelle Raza ‘15 and her colleagues received the news that they had long awaited: a jury in Redwood City had convicted three members of the Gamos Family of human trafficking and labor exploitation. The more than two dozen immigrant victims that Raza and her team fought for would see justice for the suffering that they endured for years.
It was a unique and eye-opening experience for Raza, a newly-minted deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice who has made victim advocacy her life’s work.
“It was a long and grueling trial, and as a brand-new attorney I did my best to be a sponge and learn everything that I could,” says Raza. “One lesson that was clear above all else is that these large-scale, multi-defendant cases demand a team effort—prosecutors, investigators, auditors, paralegals, victim specialists—every person played an important role in achieving the ultimate goal, justice for victims and the people of California.”
The magnitude of participating in a case like this isn’t lost on Raza—these are the kinds of people she wanted to help when she got into this work. Raza was sworn in as a deputy attorney general in November in the Criminal Division’s Special Prosecutions Section in San Francisco, which investigates white collar fraud, human trafficking, and officer-involved shootings. Few law school graduates are given this opportunity so early in their careers.
Though her legal career is just beginning, Raza’s passion to protect and advocate for victims formed early on at Santa Clara.
When she took a Violence Against Women course as a sophomore, Raza was captivated by her professor, Kavitha Sreeharsha—a South Asian woman like her—and the profound lessons on gender inequality and oppression explored in the class. It’s where she first learned about the many socioeconomic factors that perpetuate the cycle of abuse against women, knowledge that she’s relied on more than anything else in her career.
“It was the Violence Against Women class that really catapulted me into this career,” says Raza. “It was that class, which was taught by a lawyer, that opened my eyes to the work I could do in the sexual violence prevention sphere, and to what victim advocacy was.” Her experience in the class led Raza to declare a Women's and Gender Studies major in addition to her Sociology major.
Shortly after, Raza interned at the Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office as a victim advocate and fell in love with the work. After graduating she worked as a human trafficking and sexual assault victim advocate for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, which first introduced her to the possibility of going to law school.
While working in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, Raza received a referral from law enforcement officers who had met a 16-year-old human trafficking survivor during a sting operation. The girl had agreed to talk with Raza to learn about the resources available to her through the DA’s office. Raza met her at a Starbucks in Richmond a week after officers found her. The girl was standoffish and uncooperative at first but warmed up when Raza began treating her as a full person and asking questions about her life. The girl said she loved writing poetry and recited a few poems to Raza. By the end of the meeting, Raza had given her information for the resources that the DA offered and told her she would find opportunities for her to share her poems.
“She said, ‘I've met with so many service providers and you’re the first one who didn’t just throw paperwork at me,’” recalled Raza. “I don't even know that that was intentional on my part. But it was such an important lesson. Now that’s how I approach everything.”
The pair met several times in the months that followed, and Raza connected the girl to mental health services, sent her job offers and accompanied her to appointments in which she removed branding tattoos that tied her to her traffickers.
Raza also submitted the girl’s poems to a competition for teens in San Francisco, for which she won an award.
Despite the many triumphs she experienced as a victim’s advocate, Raza said she felt like there was a ceiling on what she could do in her current role and that the best way to advocate for victims would be as a lawyer.
A Voice for Survivors
In 2018, Raza went back to school to earn a law degree from the University of Southern California. During her program, Raza focused on victim advocacy and spent a year as a student attorney for the International Human Rights Clinic.
Raza remembers one of her first clients was a human trafficking survivor who was applying for a T-visa, which grants temporary legal status in the U.S. to victims of human trafficking. The woman had been coerced into immigrating to the U.S. from the Philippines to be a front desk receptionist. But upon her arrival, traffickers took her passport and drove her to a chapel in Las Vegas, where she was forced to marry to a man she didn’t know. The woman was then made to work inhumane hours as a domestic servant with no pay.
Even when the woman escaped, the trauma didn’t end. She was afraid to leave her home, in fear of running into her traffickers. Her efforts to apply for a temporary visa stalled due to restrictions from the Trump administration and when an unethical immigration attorney pocketed hundreds of dollars without making progress on her case. But after taking over the case and hunting down all the necessary paperwork, Raza and her peers at last secured a visa for their client in 2020, and the woman is now on a path to citizenship.
That experience set the foundation for Raza’s work today.
Raza’s path to the Department of Justice straight out of law school is not common. The DOJ normally wants at least four years of legal experience but makes exceptions for standout graduates, like Raza, who received honors in law school. She was among 12 law school graduates in the nation hired by the DOJ last year under an honors program.
In less than a year, she has already worked directly with victims by prosecuting crimes locally.
The survivors in the labor trafficking case that Raza helped try earlier this year were largely Filipino immigrants who were forced to live at daycare and senior centers across the Peninsula and worked hours far exceeding a normal work day. They were forced to sleep on the floor and in garages and were trafficked under threats of arrest and deportation and false promises to assist with immigration cases, according to the California Attorney General’s office.
This month, Raza and her team traveled to Los Angeles to convene a grand jury in a new case, where she questioned more than 25 witnesses on the stand—her first time doing direct examinations as a deputy attorney general.
The Best of Santa Clara
Raza’s journey came full circle earlier this year, when she shared a distant dream with her mentor and friend, Associate Professor Sharmila Lodhia, of one day teaching the Violence Against Women course at SCU. As it turned out, that dream wasn’t too far off.
Lodhia set out to make it happen and Raza began teaching the course in January, with the hope of inspiring students to become social justice advocates in their own lives. Because many of the topics they explored in class were heavy and emotionally taxing, it was important to Raza that her students have outlets to decompress after class, and that they remain hopeful about the world they live in.
“I constantly felt like my classes at SCU left me feeling like my mind was blown from a reading or class period,” says Raza. “I told my students, ‘I hope you have that moment at some point during this class.’ I hope that they walk away with a better understanding of how social structures have impacted their lives but also ways to deconstruct them and pursue advocacy.”
Lodhia, who delivered a speech when Raza was sworn into the California Bar last fall, says she “represents the best of Santa Clara students,” and exemplifies how coursework in women’s and gender studies prepares students for meaningful careers in this field.
“She’s interdisciplinary trained and activist-oriented,” says Lodhia. “Not everybody is going to have social justice as the center of their profession. But for her it really is. I knew that for her to talk about her experiences in law school and the work that she did here as an undergrad would very much speak to students who are looking to create change.”
In the spring, Raza was among nine SCU faculty and staff members awarded the Outstanding Career Influencer Award, which recognizes people who have thoughtfully supported students in their career development and success.
Raza’s class, which included guest speakers from the legal sphere and peer-led discussions, gave students a safe space to tackle difficult and heavy topics, says Maddy Dixon, a student in the class who nominated Raza for the award.
“She created a class environment where a lot of people felt seen and where you could be yourself,” says Dixon. “Her expertise in the law served as a catalyst for conversations ranging from the broken justice system to how we as students can start to reform it. It was incredible to hear about Professor Raza’s work outside of school and her prior advocacy work that uplifted and empowered survivors. She is an inspiration to all of us and a reminder that our future is bright because of people like her.”
Dixon said she’s exploring careers in sexual assault advocacy after being inspired by Raza’s class.
“I really think it changed my life,” Dixon says. “I walked out of that class every day thinking, ‘this is exactly what I want to do.’”