Human rights attorney Ahilan Arulanantham (COL ’94) was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, a no-strings-attached five-year grant worth $625,000 for individuals who demonstrate exceptional creativity in their work. Arulanantham currently serves as the American Civil Liberties Union’s director of advocacy and the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. In an interview with The Hoya, Arulanantham reflects on his plans for the fellowship, his advocacy for detainees being tried for deportation and his years at Georgetown.
What are your goals for your fellowship, and more specifically, what would you like to achieve with your grant?
I hope the award allows me to elevate the work that I’ve been doing, and broadly speaking, my goal is to bring immigration, detention and deportation systems into harmony with our values and our constitutional law. I don’t see the fellowship as fundamentally changing my direction and my work. I do want to take a portion of the funds and use it to support work that I care about but did not get to pursue in my life, and in particular, I’m thinking about human rights work in Sri Lanka. My family is from Sri Lanka, and I care very deeply about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, which remains very problematic for people of the Tamil minority. My family, we’re Sri Lankan Tamil. There are human rights organizations doing important work there and I want to use at least a portion of [the grant] to support them. Beyond that, I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve thought about it some, but I haven’t really gotten a fixed idea of how to use it in support of my work, and it’s a great problem to have. I’m still pondering it.
You have worked in immigration law and expanding rights to detainees being tried for deportation for many years. What is the most significant case that you have worked on?
I think the case which is going to the Supreme Court in December is a challenge to the detention system under which immigrants are incarcerated for years without a hearing in front of a judge on whether their detention is actually necessary. It’s all kinds of immigrants — it’s people who are lawfully present, green card holders who had a conviction but finished serving their sentence and after that get sent to a second prison system while their immigration case goes on. Others are refugees — people fleeing the most dangerous countries on earth come to our shores and then get imprisoned for months and sometimes years while we decide whether or not they’re eligible for asylum. I’ve worked on [Rodriguez v. Robbins] for almost a decade already and now it’s going to the Supreme Court. That’s certainly very significant compared to most of the cases I’ve done.
What has been your inspiration in pursuing your line of work and advocating for minorities, especially the immigrant population?
I was born here, but my family is from Sri Lanka and we’re Tamil. My parents left before there was a whole civil war, but they were subject to job discrimination and there was sporadic violence against the Tamil really throughout the period they were growing up in the country. They came here because they just did not believe Sri Lanka would be a stable and productive place for them and for their children. And then when I was 10, the civil war began in Sri Lanka, and much of my extended family fled the country. Many of them actually came and stayed with us. My cousins, aunts and uncles, and then other more extended family, and then other people who were not related to us. That experience was very formative for me because I was sort of a firsthand witness to the struggle that refugees and immigrants go through, and then also the successes they can have. My cousins and aunts and uncles, some of them are extremely successful people now. That experience as a whole left a very deep impression on me.
What are the main issues that remain with the deportation system?
Number one I would say is basic due process protection is absent. In that I would include legal representation for at least many if not all immigrants facing deportation. You have to remember the government pays for a prosecutor to argue in favor of deportation in every case in immigration court, yet we don’t provide counsel even for the most vulnerable immigrants like children, people who are asylum seekers fleeing persecution, people who have lived here for long periods of time who are separated from their families. Basic due process protection is lacking.
How did your time at Georgetown influence your work?
The biggest influence by far was my participation in the debate team. I learned many of the critical thinking skills and also life skills like hard work, doing work for its own sake and not necessarily because of the result, working in teams. So many things I learned through my participation on the debate team. It was a huge part of my experience at Georgetown. Also, I’m still close to a number of people who I went to school with at Georgetown, and those friendships have sustained me at different points in time including some of the rough times in my life and over the years. A lot of the people I’m still closest to today are people like my roommate. Those friendships really have lasted.
What wisdom would you like to impart to current Georgetown students who are passionate about immigration issues, human rights and law?
The most important thing I would say is try to imagine the world that you want to see, the world as it should look if it were just and fair in your conception of what that should be. And then, set your sights to make the world that way. That would be the first thing I would say. The second thing I would say is just remember the path will not be straight, the job that allows you to do that may not be open to you immediately the day after you graduate, or the day after you graduate law school, or whatever it is. Even if you get the job that you think is that job, then doing that work is not going to be straightforward.
But just remember that the value comes in trying to come to shape the world in a way that’s more fair and just as you see it and continuing to do that work. Living your life that way is incredibly rewarding. Every day when I go to work I know that there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. I’m not postponing for later the thing that I really want to do with my life now.
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