Academics / Activists / Lawyers / The Sunday Times

Sri Lankan-American winner of a Genius Grant champions immigrant children


When Ahilan Arulanantham heard that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation had named him a recipient of the $625,000 “Genius Grant,” one of the first things he thought about was how much he would like to spend some of it on supporting human rights work in Sri Lanka.

Since the announcement was made in late September, the 43-year-old lawyer’s phone has been ringing off the hook. None of the 23 recipients applied for the grant, and like the others Arulanantham  did not even know he was being considered. But now congratulatory messages are still pouring in, finding him in Los Angeles, where he lives and works. “It’s a wonderful thing to get contacted by people you have known your whole life and from all around the world, often at all hours of day and night. It’s a very enjoyable, dizzying sort of experience,” he tells the Sunday Times, over a call.

Arulanantham is director of advocacy and legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California.  The grant was announced just a day after he and his team experienced a disappointing setback when the U.S. Appeals Court rejected their class action lawsuit arguing for the right of unaccompanied immigrant children to have access to lawyers during deportation proceedings.

This week, Arulanantham has been preparing to see another big case, Jennings vs. Rodrigues, which they won, go up before the Supreme Court for review. He explains that in the balance now is the issue of the government’s power to detain immigrants and refugees and what limits there should be on that power.

“It’s very uncertain and a huge amount is at stake,” says Arulanantham, pointing out that tonight alone some 38,000 people will sleep in an immigration detention centre in the US.Over the course of a year, as many as 400,000 people will find themselves in a similar position. This “parallel prison system” is one in which many of the basic procedural protections afforded in criminal cases do not apply. With the Rodriquez case, Arulanantham and his team are asking that immigrants held in detention – up to half of whom might be refugees – be given the right to a bond hearing in front of a judge.

Without this measure, detainees live in uncertainty, not knowing when their cases will be heard or when they will be released. “Rodriguez was detained for 3 ½ years, but that’s not unusual,” says Arulanantham, adding that “in fact the first case I took on in this area was that of a Sri Lankan Tamil refugee, who was detained for 4 ½ years.”

Run by county jails and private prison companies, conditions within the centres mimic prison. Inmates wear prison jumpsuits and are only allowed ‘no contact’ visits, where they are forced to talk to their families through a glass barrier. “Although under the law their cases are treated as civil rather than criminal, in practice that distinction is just a fiction,” says Arulanantham. With no right to a court appointed lawyer, most must navigate the complex system on their own, even though on the other side of the case, a prosecutor is appointed.

For child refugees, the system is kinder in one aspect –the vast majority of children are placed very quickly with their nearest relatives in the States. In cases where a child arrives with a parent, however, they are likely to be put in detention together, an occurrence which in Arulanantham’s view is an abomination and perhaps the most “egregious aspect of the Obama administration’s immigration policy in the last two years.” Even children transferred to the custody of a relative are charged with being deportable. Most children will struggle to make it to court and, like the adults, seldom have access to lawyers. “They are knowingly perpetuating an injustice,” says Arulanantham, of the American authorities.

Arulanantham has been grappling with these issues for years, and has successfully litigated several landmark cases, including one which helped to establish limits on the government’s power to detain immigrants as national security threats and another that ensured the federal government now provides legal representation to mentally ill immigrants.

With degrees from Georgetown University, Oxford and Yale Law School, Arulanantham was named one of California Lawyer Magazine’s ‘Lawyers of the Year’ for his work at the intersection of immigrants’ rights and national security. In 2007, 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2013, he was named one of the Daily Journal’s ‘Top 100 Lawyers in California.’ In 2010, he received the Arthur C. Helton Human Rights Award from the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association.

But Arulanantham isn’t quite sure he qualifies for this latest honour. The MacArthur Foundation say their Fellows Programme among things ‘awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits.’ Says Arulanantham: “I did not apply for it, and I am not sure I would have given it to myself – I don’t see the work I do as particularly innovative.”

Instead, for him it is simply about “applying very basic constitutional principles in an area where our values are not particularly in harmony with our practice.” (After the announcement he Tweeted: ‘It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you want a child to get a fair hearing in immigration court, they need a lawyer.’)

His deep interest in this issue is very much shaped by his experiences as a child. His parents, both doctors, left Sri Lanka in the 1960s following  the introduction of the Sinhala Only Policy and the multiple outbreaks of violence in the 1950s, convinced they  needed to raise their children in a more stable environment. Most of their family members, however, chose to stay.

Arulanantham was only ten years old in the Black July of 1983. He remembers clearly how his father explained that the cousins they had met a few times before would be coming to live with them. “He said, ‘It could be a few days, it could be a few months.’” But in the end, the family ended up having guests for years, with sometimes as many as 16 people at a time in their home. His family was not exceptional among the diaspora for throwing open their home to the community, Arulanantham emphasises, however, seeing first-hand the kind of trauma his relatives, and in particular his cousins, the same age as him, had been through, was a defining experience.

Today, particularly in the context of Donald Trump’s run for President, Arulanantham sees a chronic shortage of empathy for immigrants and refugees in America. He believes more people in the US would be kinder if they could only step, just for a moment, in to the shoes of someone fleeing violence or even someone simply trying to build a better life for their children.

He knows this doesn’t mean the policies would necessarily change, but perhaps there would be a little less judgement of those knocking on the door – and even that, says the lawyer, would be an improvement.

Arulanantham who has visited Sri Lanka five times since 2000 has many friends and family here. Though he does not know the local human rights environment as intimately as that in the States, he says he cares deeply about this island and would like to support work here. Having worked on the odd human rights case relating to the country, it remains “something of the road not taken. It’s something that has been on my mind for many years.” Now for him, one of the perks of this Genius Grant will be a chance to address that history in an entirely unexpected way.

 Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 16 October, 2016. By Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy MacArthur Foundation.