From the President: A Lifetime of Achievement

Manuel Vargas is the recipient of NACDL's Lifetime Achievement Award. For years he has been a leader in the fight to protect the rights of noncitizens ensnared in the criminal justice system.

Access to The Champion archive is one of many exclusive member benefits. It’s normally restricted to just NACDL members. However, this content, and others like it, is available to everyone in order to educate the public on why criminal justice reform is a necessity.

In early March, NACDL held a groundbreaking conference in New Orleans on the topic of “Preventing & Mitigating the Domino Effect of Criminal Convictions.” It was an outstanding program on a critically important topic that touches the lives of tens of millions of people in this country. The theme of the seminar — collateral consequences — would not be a preeminent concern for our profession if it were not for Manuel “Manny” Vargas, senior counsel at the Immigrant Defense Project. And so it was with great pride that on the morning of March 6, on behalf of the association, I presented Manny Vargas with NACDL’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

For more than two decades, Manny Vargas has been a leader in the fight to protect the rights of noncitizens ensnared in America’s massive criminal justice system. He has led the criminal defense bar in coming to grips with the profound immigration consequences that may flow from virtually every encounter that an immigrant has with law enforcement. Indeed, he was an initiator of the Deportation Defense Initiative, a massive pro bono effort in support of immigrant rights, and he co-founded the Defending Immigrants Partnership, a national collaboration to provide legal training and backup support for the defense bar. That partnership, of which NACDL is a proud member, was a sponsor of the collateral consequences seminar in New Orleans.

To grasp the profound impact that Manny Vargas has had on the practice of criminal defense, one must go back in time to 1996. The history of noncitizen immigrants in America can be divided into two eras: before 1996 and after 1996. In that year, Congress and the Clinton administration enacted two new anti-crime and anti-immigrant rights statutes that forever changed the legal landscape for both lawful and undocumented immigrants in the United States. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act vastly increased the categories of criminal judgments that provoked mandatory detention and deportation, extending them to include many nonviolent and misdemeanor offenses. At the same time, the law significantly limited the availability of discretionary relief from removal. These laws turned fairness and justice upside down and inside out.

Manny Vargas launched some of the earliest trainings and developed seminar resources on how to effectively represent immigrant defendants. In so doing, he led his colleagues in New York, and eventually the entire criminal defense bar, to a new awareness about the need to creatively advocate to protect clients from the heartbreak of deportation. He helped lead not only the defense bar but the Supreme Court to define a new standard for defense practice. And he would be the first to acknowledge that others were also tackling this issue. Two members of our esteemed faculty at the collateral consequences seminar in New Orleans, Kathy Brady and Dan Kesselbrenner, were in the vanguard of this movement too.

Over the years, those training efforts have proliferated and the influence of Manny Vargas has helped change the law — and with it expectations for what constitutes effective representation. He has authored treatises and articles and he has guided key litigation that has materially blunted the impact of the 1996 laws. He has also provided backup legal support and coordinated amicus efforts in several seminal Supreme Court cases, such as INS v. St. Cyr, Lopez v. Gonzales, Carachuri-Rosendo v. Holder, Moncrieffe v. Holder and, of course, the landmark case of Padilla v. Kentucky, in which Vargas coordinated the amicus effort on behalf of NACDL and 17 other criminal and immigrant defense organizations.

It is no exaggeration to say that through his vision, leadership and his commitment to teaching his profession, Manny Vargas has literally improved the lives of thousands who followed their dreams to America. His impact will be felt in countless families for generations to come. Thanks to Manny Vargas, generations of proud Americans will look up to parents and grandparents whose ability to live in this country he made possible. And that is truly a lifetime achievement.

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