News Release

Manuel D. Vargas, Senior Counsel at the Immigrant Defense Project, Receives Lifetime Achievement Award from Nation's Criminal Defense Bar

Washington, DC (March 6, 2014) – This morning, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) presented Manuel D. Vargas, senior counsel at the Immigrant Defense Project, with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The award was presented by NACDL President Jerry J. Cox at the opening of NACDL’s 2014 Midwinter Seminar & Meeting, which is devoted entirely to the subject of the collateral consequences of conviction.

For more than two decades, Manny Vargas has been a leader in the fight to protect the rights of non-citizens 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, Vargas was an initiator of the Deportation Defense Initiative, a massive pro bono effort in support of immigrant rights, and he co-founded the Defending Immigrant Partnership, a national collaboration to provide legal training and back up support for the defense bar. That partnership, of which NACDL is a proud member, is a sponsor of the collateral consequences seminar at which Vargas received this award today.

In presenting Vargas with NACDL’s Lifetime Achievement Award, NACDL President Jerry J. Cox said: "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, my friends, is truly a LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT."

The history of non-citizen immigrants in America can be divided into two eras:  before 1996 and after 1996. In that year, two new anti-crime and anti-immigrant rights statutes were enacted by Congress and the Clinton Administration 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 non-violent and misdemeanor offenses. And, at the same time, the law significantly limited the availability of discretionary relief from removal.

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. Vargas was among the first to see that resourcing the defense community was indispensable to blunting the impact of the 1996 laws. He was the first to pilot a statewide program to systematically resource, train and consult with defenders on immigration consequences of their clients’ cases, and to employ aggressive strategies to fashion safe dispositions. Over the years, those training efforts have proliferated and Vargas’s influence has helped change the law – and with it expectations for what constitutes effective representation.  

Vargas has authored treatises and articles and he has provided the bar with critical consultation and strategic insight. He has guided key litigation that has materially blunted the impact of the '96 laws. And he has provided backup legal support and coordinated amicus efforts in a slew of 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.

Vargas received his B.A. from Yale University in 1979 and his J.D. from the New York University School of Law in 1984.

Past recipients of NACDL’s Lifetime Achievement Award include Stephen B. Bright, Ramsey Clark, Bobby Lee Cook, Deryl Dantzler, Samuel Dash, Judge William Wayne Justice, and Michael E. Tigar. A complete list of recipients of NACDL’s Lifetime Achievement Award is available here.

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Ivan Dominguez, Director of Public Affairs and Communications (202) 465-7662 or

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.