Leading Immigration Advocate Arulanantham Joins UCLA Law

February 24, 2021
Ahilan Arulanantham

Ahilan Arulanantham, one of the nation’s most respected advocates for immigrants’ rights, is joining UCLA School of Law as co-faculty director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy and professor from practice.

Arulanantham is celebrated for his visionary efforts both inside and outside of the courtroom. This includes leadership in a great number of transformative lawsuits that have had a profound and positive impact on the lives of noncitizens in the United States – initiatives that have in turn inspired many lawyers to also confront and combat the immense challenges that immigrants presently face.

He comes to UCLA Law from the ACLU of Southern California, where since 2004 he led immigrants’ rights and national security advocacy and litigation. He was most recently senior counsel and, previously, director of advocacy/legal director.

“Ahilan Arulanantham is one of the nation’s leading thinkers, litigators, and advocates on immigrants’ rights,” says David Cole, the American Civil Liberty Union’s national legal director and perhaps the country’s leading civil rights litigator, who oversees the organization’s full range of efforts across state and federal courts. “He has devoted his career to advancing the principle that immigrants deserve the basic human rights that citizens take for granted – including the right to counsel and the right not to be detained without a fair hearing in which they have a meaningful opportunity to defend themselves.”

Cole adds that Arulanantham “combines the critical skills of a litigator, the creative vision of an activist, and the theoretical acumen of a scholar. UCLA is lucky to get him, and I look forward to seeing what he and UCLA can do together.”

At the ACLU, Arulanantham’s successful representations have expanded noncitizens’ right to appointed legal counsel and limited immigration-related detentions. For example, in Ramos v. Nielsen, Arulanantham successfully challenged the Trump administration’s attempt to rescind Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from several countries. The trial court was persuaded by his argument that the rescission discriminated on the basis of race, and it issued nationwide injunctions protecting 400,000 immigrants who would have otherwise lost their status. He also argued Jennings v. Rodriguez, seeking bond hearings for detainees whose cases are pending in immigration court, twice in the U.S. Supreme Court.

For this work and more, Arulanantham has received many accolades, most notably, in 2016, a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant” and among the nation’s most prestigious awards for “extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential.” In honoring him for “working to secure the right to due process for individuals facing deportation,” the foundation noted, “Through his incremental approach and careful selection of cases, Arulanantham works to demonstrate the human costs of denying due process to immigrants and to set vital precedents to expand the rights of non-citizens.”

For Arulanantham, who is the child of Sri Lankan Tamil immigrants, the work is often personal. During his time at the ACLU, he represented refugees who fled the war in Sri Lanka. Many members of his family also fled their home country to escape violence and discrimination.

Over the years, Arulanantham has also maintained a close relationship with UCLA Law, including serving as the Critical Race Studies program’s inaugural visiting scholar in 2017.

“Ahilan has inspired our students with his intellect, eloquence, and passion,” says Hiroshi Motomura, UCLA Law’s Susan Westerberg Prager Distinguished Professor of Law and one of the nation’s top immigration law experts, who has served as the Center for Immigration Law and Policy’s inaugural faculty director.

“He has been a visionary in the movement to make sure that this country treats immigrants and immigrant communities fairly, humanely, and according to the rule of law. He has been a master strategist, a consummate organizer, and the source of many of the ideas that have mattered in immigration law and immigrants’ rights over the past two decades,” Motomura says. “It has been my dream that he would play a leading role in the new center.”

The Center for Immigration Law and Policy was launched in 2020 with a $5 million commitment from alumna Alicia Miñana ’87 and her husband, Rob Lovelace. With Motomura and Arulanantham at the helm, the center will engage in sophisticated and trailblazing advocacy, serve as a hub of immigration-law study, deepen the impact of faculty scholarship, and further enhance the law school’s existing successful programs, including the Immigrant Family Legal Clinic and service-learning trips for students to the border regions of Texas and Tijuana, Mexico.

“UCLA Law’s faculty expertise and track record of developing leaders and innovations in immigration law and policy put it in the perfect position to become a still-greater force for justice at a crucial time,” Miñana said in announcing the creation of the center.

Arulanantham previously worked as an assistant federal defender in El Paso, Texas, and taught courses on preventive detention at the University of Chicago Law School and UC Irvine School of Law. As an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project in New York City, he worked on the ground in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, documenting detention practices and conditions and assisting more than 100 detainees.

He earned a B.A., summa cum laude, from Georgetown University, a second B.A. as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford University, and a J.D. from Yale Law School. After graduation, he clerked for Judge Stephen Reinhardt of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

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