When one of the biggest immigration raids in American history took place in Postville, Iowa, attorney Sonia Parras Konrad led a rapid response to try and keep as many families together as she should.
She mobilized people to help hundreds of workers and dedicated close to five years of pro bono legal assistance to the cause. More than 170 “U visas” were approved as a result of the work of Sonia and an army of volunteers. U visas are visas set aside for victims of certain crimes who have suffered mental or physical abuse and are helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.
For her efforts, Sonia was awarded the 2009 Michael Maggio Memorial Pro Bono Award from the American Immigration Lawyers Association. Also in 2009, she opened the Sonia Parras Law Office in Des Moines, which specializes in immigration law.
Although she hails from Barcelona, Spain, the 52-year-old has developed a deep connection with Iowa’s Latino community through her career experiences, including clerking for an immigration attorney, providing courtroom interpretation, and working at the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) for 12 years.
At ICADV, Sonia learned a lot about the Latino community, its struggles, and the needs of immigrant women like her but who were involved in abusive relationships.
Since the beginning of her career, Sonia focused on solving problems along with the immigrant survivors she represented and addressed the systematic inequalities and challenges posed to survivors in the community.
Taking care of other people is something Sonia has always done. She is a middle child in a family of six and as common in large families, the older children took care of the younger siblings.
“I became a ‘mother’ at the age of seven,” Sonia said laughing. She thinks that experience truly defined her.
Her path to becoming an attorney involved a broken family and a broken bone.
Life was good for the Parras family—at least that is what Sonia thought—until her parents divorced when she was 15. Her family split and her mother kept custody of the two youngest siblings while her dad kept the four oldest.
This turn of events flipped Sonia’s life on its head. In all the uncertainty, she dropped out of high school and eventually moved in with her mother.
Her mother was a supervisor at a clothing factory and gave Sonia a job with the sole intention of showing her daughter what life would be like if she did not pursue higher education.
“I started at the bottom of the totem pole in the factory,” Sonia said. “On my feet all day long at age 16 running from one machine to the next and standing up cutting shirt threads. I woke up at 5 a.m. and sometimes working at the factory until midnight with my mom.”
Sonia’s first paycheck came a bit short, but she was excited to have her own money until her mother told her she needed to pay for her own shoes, clothes, and other expenses. Sonia realized she did not make enough to cover her basics.
Her mother had made her point; Sonia went back to finish high school.
“I was privileged because I was given the opportunity to study,” Sonia said. “This is not a success story because I am Sonia. This is a success story because I got a chance to study.
“If you do not have that opportunity, it does not mean you are done. You need to figure out a way. However, sometimes it is not possible so, we need to think about how we can support the ones that can’t.”
After high school, Sonia was thought about what would best suit her in higher education. She was an athletic child and wanted to become a physical education coach. Her mother was supportive but told her: “If you want to be a coach you can do it, but if it doesn’t work, you are going to law school.”
“My mom always told me that I would be a very good lawyer or a good judge,” Sonia.
One week before competing in her final physical tests to qualify, Sonia broke her leg and was not able to continue onto her desired field. She again followed her mother’s advice and entered law school at age 19.
In law school, she developed an interest in international law because she wanted to use her degree to help improve the lives of women anywhere in the world, an ambition that eventually led her to Iowa where she met her husband, Mark.
Besides practicing law, Sonia’s goal is to empower women, which in turn empowers families and communities. She often works for the US Department of State traveling to Central and South America to train and provide technical assistance to organizations and governments working to end gender violence.
Another way she has done this is by founding or contributing to several nonprofit organizations over the years.
Some of those organizations include Mujeres Unidas por un Nuevo Amanecer, Latinas Unidas por un Nuevo Amanecer, the Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines, and ASISTA, a national organization that works on public policy advocacy and provides training and technical legal assistance to lawyers and advocates working with survivors.
“I want my legacy to be in tune with my philosophy, which is one of empowerment and support of other women leaders,” Sonia said. “Based on this, I have started movements and organizations with the support of many, but then when they become bigger than me or something else, I need to step aside and watch it grow.”
Sonia is a perfect reminder of something famed Chilean writer Isabelle Allende said: “You only have what you give. It’s by spending yourself that you become rich.”
Iowa Starting Line will honor and celebrate Hispanic/Latino Heritage month by highlighting Iowa Latinos/Latinas who have made a lasting impact in their community and beyond.
By Claudia Thrane