Deputy Legal Director

Mr. Ahilan Arulanatham

Deputy Legal Director,ACLU of Southern California, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project

During his tenure at ACLU SoCal, Ahilan has successfully litigated several landmark cases, including Nadarajah v. Gonzales, the first Ninth Circuit case establishing limits on the government’s power to detain immigrants as national security threats; Rodriguez v. Robbins, which required the government to provide bond hearings to thousands of immigration detainees; and Franco v. Holder, the first case to establish a right to appointed legal representation for any group of immigrants facing deportation, which required the federal government to provide legal representation to mentally ill immigrants.

In 2007, Ahilan 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: Ahilan was named One of the Daily Journal’s Top 100 Lawyers in California.In 2010, he received the Arthur C. Helton Human Rights Award by the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association.

Ahilan has testified before both the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate on national security and immigrants’ rights issues.

Ahilan has also served as a Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago Law School, where he taught a course on preventive detention.

Prior to joining the ACLU SoCal in 2004, Ahilan was an Assistant Federal Public Defender in El Paso, Texas for two years. Before that, he was an Equal Justice Works/NAPIL fellow at the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project in New York. Ahilan is a former law clerk on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, a graduate of Yale Law School, and a graduate of Oxford University, which he attended as a Marshall Scholar.

Excerpts from Interview with Thiru Ahilan Arulanatham (For full interview, please checkout TAP 2015 Book at

CK: What lead you to take up an active role in ACLU, to be part of the ACLU? How did your path lead you to ACLU?

AA: In Law School, you have a chance in summer time to work in different kinds of organizations. It is a very common thing. People get a job for summer. You get to see what that place is like. They also get to see what you are like. My first summer I went to Tamilnadu and worked with a human rights organization in India that had lots of focus on Srilankan refugees. And then in my second summer, I split it. I spent part of the time at Human Rights Watch – working on Srilanka and other refugee issues and part of the time at ACLU. Out of the three organizations I worked in, I was impressed with ACLU. They seemed to have a very directed focus on what they wanted to do and also a wide variety of work. They were working on different kinds of immigrant rights issues. When I finished I went to work for a judge. It is called Clerkship. I did that for 1 year. After that, I went to work in what is called a fellowship. It is a two year funded position to work on one particular issue. Actually the issue I focussed on was the refugees from Srilanka who were detained in the detention system that we have. We run in this country a parallel prison system. While we decide whether immigrants should stay or not, they stay in these detention centers. They do not have the rights normal prisoners have. In theory you are facing deportaion. It is not supposed to be a punishment. You dont have right to appointed lawyer. Your bail hearing cannot be heard. You dont have a judge. You have an administrative judge. You dont have a jury. It is a deficient system. That is the system that is used for refugee case. That is what I worked on when I went to ACLU. One thing with ACLU is, they work on really big cases, lot of people working on them, even though I think they liked me and I liked them, it is hard to get a lot of your own hands on experience. You are not in charge of that much stuff. That is the reason i I decided to leave it. I knew I would come back. I left and went to work as a federal public defender. By doing that i got my own case load, i ran my own trials, i was entirely in charge of mine for a while. I did that for 2 years and before I re-joined ACLU in LA.

CK: What message would you like to convey to youngsters?

The future is yours more than anyone else’s. Because it is the young who will inherit the future and we have a possibility. We really do have a chance to change and shape the world in ways we want to be. Look at all the technology pioneers, including tamil americans, who have transformed our world completely in 10 to 20 years. Similarly in whatever you are interested in medicine, law, human rights activist, we are working to change the world in ways we would like them to me. To me the idea that you would not spend most of your time trying to make the world you want to see, make the world you want to live in, it seems starnge to me. We work a lot, typyically 8 usually more. I would say spend that time making the world you want to live in.

CK: How do you define success?

AA: I would define it as when I go to sleep at night, do I think that I have tried to live
according to my values. Did I make the people around me and make the world similar to
what i belive in. Would I be proud of my own actions is the questions that I would ask.

Mr. Ahilan Arulantham’s TAP Tip For Success

Trust what you believe in. Many times in life, whether it is personal, or it is your job, or in
other contexts, when your heart is telling you what is right, and the clutter and noise is
telling you something else, have the courage to go with the what you believe in.