NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer’s Remarks Accepting the Immigrant Defense Project’s Champion of Justice Award

By Norman L. Reimer, NACDL Executive Director

On April 10, 2018, The Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) presented NACDL Executive Director Norman L. Reimer with its Champion of Justice Award at its 20th Anniversary Gala — “An Evening Celebrating 20 Years of Fighting for Justice and Human Rights” at Houston Hall in New York City. Below are Norman Reimer’s prepared remarks accepting that award.

One does not choose the work of the criminal defense lawyer because it is easy. One chooses this career path because it is hard, because it is a challenge, because it is a noble calling to stand with the accused when the government brings a prosecution, which is the fiercest use of state power short of warfare.

The right to counsel affirms the dignity of every human being, and therefore places a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of the defense lawyer. For those who have chosen the path of the defense, there is nothing more agonizing than to fall short of doing the best you can for your client. And that was a real danger before there was the Immigrant Defense Project.

As we gather tonight, the reign of terror against immigrants in this country is at a fever pitch, but it did not start at the last presidential inauguration, or the last election. It began gathering steam a generation ago. And when it began, most criminal defense lawyers were in the dark.

For decades, defense lawyers were trained to defend cases, to challenge evidence, to fight for the best possible outcome. Their training and expertise was in the criminal law. They measured their success by acquittals, or probationary sentences, or minimizing jail time, or avoiding a death sentence. Most defense lawyers were clueless that what seemed like a good resolution of a case could have life-altering or even life-threatening consequences for their clients. The idea of “Collateral Consequences” was unrecognized.

But you, Immigrant Defense Project, you lit a candle in that darkness. You knew that despite even the best intentions of the most dedicated and talented defender, there could be no substitute for knowledge. You offered that knowledge where there was ignorance. You provided resources where there were none. You revolutionized defense practice. Eventually, you changed the very definition of what it means to provide effective assistance of counsel.

Today, every responsible defense lawyer considers collateral consequences in how they approach their clients’ cases. And today, all defense lawyers must consider the immigration status of their client, and strive for a result that will, to the maximum extent possible, safeguard that status.

Your work, Immigrant Defense Project, has benefitted thousands of defense lawyers and tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of clients. Your work has touched lives and kept countless families united. On behalf of all those lawyers, and all those clients, and all those families, I humbly and gratefully accept this recognition.

I close with these observations. There are two advantages in having been at this work for a while. First, you get life-affirming awards like this, which means a lot to me, especially from IDP. And also, with the passage of time you gain perspective.

Here is mine: This disgraceful era of immigrant bashing is now reaching its zenith. It may be that the coming few months will be the darkest. But the dawn is coming. The long night of irrational xenophobia will end. Demagogues, and those who peddle fear and stoke division, inevitably are exposed. And in their stark nakedness one sees them for what they are — bullies, bullies who traffic in hate, distortion, and outright lies.

America’s remarkable journey has never been a straight path toward full equality and justice for all. Periods of progress have been followed by periods of regression. But in the end, hatred loses. Love and compassion triumph. And when the history of this sad and ugly chapter in our nation is written, when the hate mongers have been consigned to the ignominy they so richly deserve, groups like the Immigrant Defense Project will be eternally celebrated for keeping aglow the luminous beacon of hope.

For all you have done for the past 20 years, and what I know you will do for the next 20, you are the real heroes. You are the honorees tonight. Thank you, IDP.

About the Author

Norman L. Reimer is NACDL’s Executive Director.

Norman L. Reimer
Washington, DC

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