Answering the call

This MacArthur ‘Genius’ says he would return his $625,000 prize for immigrant children

John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Ahilan Arulanantham’s phone rang four times before he finally picked up the call. The attorney was rushing to file a pile of documents and didn’t have time to be bothered with phone calls—especially one from an unknown Chicago number.

Now he’s glad he picked up. It turned out to be a genius move.

On the other end of the line was the MacArthur Foundation, informing him he had been selected to receive a coveted, mysterious and exclusive MacArthur “genius grant”— an unparalleled merit-based honor that comes with a no-strings-attached $625,000 stipend.

Nobody applies for the grant, so the 23 people selected for the fellowships this year were all caught by surprise when they got that call. The foundation identifies people doing groundbreaking good deeds, studies them from afar, then calls with the good news.

“They called completely out of the blue,” said Arulanantham, the deputy legal director at the ACLU of Southern California who is currently working on a federal case to ensure unaccompanied immigrant children are provided lawyers when they go through deportation proceedings.

Ahilan Arulanantham working at his office in Los Angeles.John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Ahilan Arulanantham working at his office in Los Angeles.

The fellowship prize announcement, which was made public on Thursday, comes at a bittersweet moment for Arulanantham. It was just days after the U.S. Appeals Court rejected the class action lawsuit he is working on to guarantee legal representation to immigrant children fleeing violence in Central America. That was a significant setback for the case, and he says the grant is no consolation prize.

“Honestly I would trade the award to win appointed council for children in a heartbeat,” Arulanantham, 43, told me in a phone interview. “It is definitely difficult to work on immigrant rights. At the same time, it gives me great encouragement when a foundation of this stature recognizes the importance of your work.”

Arulanantham, who was raised by Sri Lankan parents in Southern California, says he’s always known he would work in defense of human rights, refugee rights or immigrant rights, because it’s always been a part of his life. When he was 10, his extended family fled the war in Sri Lanka and moved in with his family in California.

“I really got to see first hand the lives of refugees because they were my cousins, they were my age. I saw the struggle and accomplishments of being displaced like that,” he said.

Defending the rights of people fleeing violence became his life calling.

Arulanantham has represented thousands of immigrants over the past two decades. He says his work has been in defense of the Fifth Amendment guarantee that no person should be deprived of their liberty without due process.

In 2006, Arulanantham worked on the landmark class action lawsuit Nadarajah v. Gonzales, which challenged the indefinite detention of immigrants. The case granted immigrants in deportation proceedings the right to a bond hearing after six months in detention.

Now Arulanantham is representing Central American children as young as three who have fled Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. And he says “it doesn’t take a genius” to know that kids facing deportation can’t defend themselves in court against professional government prosecutors.

Arulanantham says he hasn’t had enough time to process what he’ll do with the $625,000 prize, but says he may put some of the money towards supporting human rights work in Sri Lanka. After all, that was his original calling to the cause, and one he now has the financial freedom to dedicate more time to.

“One thing I’ve thought about is supporting human rights work in Sri Lanka because I care deeply about that and I have not been able to devote my work to it,” he told Fusion.

“I ended up doing more work with refugees in U.S. than in Sri Lanka.”