“Honestly I would trade the award... in a heartbeat”
Image via YouTube, MacArthur Foundation
The MacArthur Foundation recently informed human rights attorney Ahilan Arulanantham that he was one of 23 people to win a “genius grant,” an honor that comes with a $625,000 stipend to use in whatever way they choose. Though unlike many past winners who typically use the cash to fund experimental projects within their fields, Arulanantham says he’d give it all back.
To understand this unlikely response, it helps to have a little knowledge of Arulanantham’s background. As the deputy legal director at the ACLU of Southern California, Arulanantham represents the underrepresented. Currently, he’s working to ensure that immigrant children without guardians get the legal protection they need while trying to navigate deportation proceedings essentially on their own.
Soon after hearing he’d won the grant, Arulanantham received some disappointing news. Apparently, the U.S. Appeals Court denied the class action lawsuit he’d filed in an attempt to secure lawyers for these immigrant children, many of whom are seeking refuge from the violence currently pervading Central America. In an interview with Fusion, Arulanantham said,
“Honestly I would trade the award to win appointed council for children in a heartbeat. 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.”
Though he grew up in Southern California, Arulanantham was raised by Sri Lankan immigrants. At the young age of 10, Arulanantham’s relatives fled violence in Sri Lanka to join his family and start new lives in the U.S. This has likely influenced his passion for defending human and immigrant rights as well as justice for refugees. “I really got to see first hand the lives of refugees because they were my cousins, they were my age,” Arulanantham explained to Fusion’s Jorge Rivas, “I saw the struggle and accomplishments of being displaced like that.”
Over the past 20 years, Arulanantham has done tremendous work defending refugees and immigrants, representing thousands of people in need over the course of his career. It was for this reason, no doubt, that the MacArthur Foundation chose to honor Arulanantham and his inspiring life calling. While Arulanantham tells Fusion he isn’t yet sure how he’ll utilize the $625,000 grant, it’s likely he’ll put at least a portion of it toward benefiting human rights causes in Sri Lanka. And without spending a single dime, Arulanantham has already brought attention to these causes with the attention-grabbing headline that he’d give back the prize if he could. In my mind, that alone deserves a genius grant.