Luz María Henríquez grew up in Fontana, California, with her parents, who were undocumented immigrants from Mexico.
She watched others take advantage of undocumented immigrants in her community, and she wanted to join the fight for civil rights and ensure that the most vulnerable populations in the country were defended.
“I decided I wanted to go into law, and I was very influenced in undergrad by classes about law and politics,” she said. “I thought that was a really great career to go into to ensure that everyone’s voices were being heard and everyone’s rights were protected.”
Henríquez graduated in 2005 from the University of California, San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Three years later, she earned her law degree from the University of California, Berkeley School of Law after completing her third year of law school as a visiting law student at New York University School of Law.
Henríquez built her litigation experience at Hogan Lovells in New York City, handling complex litigation as well as pro bono work. In 2014 she became a staff attorney for the children’s legal alliance unit for the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.
Now as managing attorney of the agency’s education justice program, she works to preserve the rights of students experiencing homelessness and to correct the failure of school districts to support those students.
“I think one of the most touching moments I’ve had is when one of my lead plaintiffs — an amazing young man [who] was kept out of school for a long time due to his issues with experiencing homelessness — gave me a big hug and said, ‘I just wanted you to know that I am so grateful that you are in my corner and I have someone fighting for me to school,’” Henríquez recounted.
That moment was a good reminder that, while she is dealing with systemic issues, real people are affected by those problems.
“Early on in my life, I realized the importance of community when your community feels like they can’t turn to the other systems in place that are supposed to protect the community,” she said. “If there was an issue, we would not go to the police because there was a concern that that would trigger documentation issues.”
Henríquez said she is keenly aware of social and racial inequities that exist in today’s political and social climate. For example, the U.S.-born lawyer is still asked if she speaks English by strangers.
That awareness is also acute in the communities she serves.
“My clients raise those issues to me,” she said. “I’m not sure that they always register that a situation they are going through is connected to the national picture, though.”
Her advice for other young attorneys just entering the battlefield of civil-rights litigation: Comfort is the enemy.
“I would say, don’t lose hope. It’s challenging, and you have to keep pushing,” she said. “One of the things that I have learned that I try to keep in mind is that comfort is the enemy.
“Even when we are uncomfortable we are at our best. If we are comfortable, we are going along [with the status quo].”