ACLU Director Shares Insights From the Field on US Immigration Policy


A man in a suit speaks into a microphone
Ahilan T. Arulanantham speaks on his personal experience living through civil war on Feb. 21. (Alyssa Alfonso • The Student Life)

Ahilan Arulanantham, 2016 MacArthur Genius and current Director of Advocacy and Legal Director at American Civil Liberties Union Southern California, came to Scripps College on Feb. 21 to share stories from 16 years of experience working in immigrants’ rights and national security. Arulanantham was in his first year as a lawyer at the ACLU when the Twin Towers were hit on 9/11, and spent the next fifteen years fighting for fair, lawful processing of refugees and immigrants coming into the United States.

Arulanantham spoke about his personal motivations for his line of work. Before he was born, his parents came to the United States in search of a better life than what was available to them in Sri Lanka at the time. Years later, when he was a young boy, civil war broke out in their country. His house became a refuge for cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends seeking asylum in the United States. Arulanantham spent two years sleeping on the floor of his parents’ room with his brother in order to accommodate loved ones who were forced to flee their homes.

“That struggle, seeing them go through that, was really a profound experience for me,” Arulanantham said in his talk. “It gave a me a deep sense of empathy for the difficulties that happen when people are displaced. Whether you’re displaced as a refugee or you came here because there was no way to make a life where you were living, those are the people who are deserving of our respect.”

During Arulanantham’s first two years at the ACLU, he worked with detained immigrants in New York City. He recounted one client who came from the same region of Sri Lanka as his family, was in the United States lawfully, and had been detained for four years before Arulanantham could prove in court that this man was a documented immigrant.

“A lot of my work has been trying to get people to recognize not that we can’t have an immigration law, not that we can’t have set numbers about how many people can come here, but just that when we do it we should have fairness operating in that system,” Arulanantham said.

Hours before Arulanantham spoke at Scripps about his work, the Trump administration announced a new immigration policy which significantly cracks down on the flow of people between American borders. The new legislation calls for stricter enforcement of regulations outlined during the Obama administration, such as the detention and removal of immigrants convicted of any criminal offense, not just those considered most serious. The policy also calls for expedited removals by Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as a push to recruit local law enforcers to help with deportation, according to the New York Times.

The tension between federal and local government will be highlighted in sanctuary cities and other areas that resist the federal policies, as they potentially risk cuts in federal funding. When Arulanantham was asked about the role of sanctuary cities within the upcoming federal immigration policies, he explained that they were an important step that must be followed by sustained action and vigilance.

“I think it is extremely important in this environment,” Arulanantham said, “to express political opposition to the federal attempt to co-opt state and local law enforcement into federal immigration law.”

Students, faculty, and staff across the Claremont Colleges have banded together to make the schools and the city of Claremont safer places for undocumented immigrants. On Feb. 3, Pitzer College hosted Claremont Mayor Samuel Pedroza in a signing ceremony for the Claremont City Council’s Jan. 24 resolution which “affirms the city’s long-standing commitment to diversity and safeguarding the civil rights, safety and dignity of all people.” The resolution was passed almost two months after Pitzer declared itself a sanctuary college on Nov. 30.

Some activists, such as Shayok Chakraborty PO ’19, head of the Damage Control Action Network (DCAN), a student activist organization, consider the sanctuary trend to be more of a symbolic gesture with no legal backing to ensure that state officials stick to their words. Chakraborty also worries that student involvement is decreasing since the election.

“There was a huge burst of energy right after the election. We’ve been calling for volunteers the last few weeks and the pool of students signing up is not as large as it was in November,” he said. “I think people are feeling demoralized, so I encourage students to reach out to campus organizations.”

Ian Schiffer PO ’17 is involved with various organizations such as the Inland Empire Immigrant Youth Coalition and said that he tries to use the privileges afforded to him by his white, documented, male status to be an accomplice in the struggle for immigration justice.

“There are people down the road, on campus, people you see everyday that are affected by the policies, and have been since before Trump was elected,” Schiffer said. “We need to show up for these folks permanently, not just once, and not just on Facebook.”

Arulanantham’s presence on campus this week echoed the energy that exists in student coalitions and organizations working to create safe spaces and provide resources for undocumented communities and people affected by an increasingly militarized federal immigration policy. Going forward, the shift in policy rhetoric and the declared resistance to that rhetoric will be a legal and financial battle that will test the power of local government in opposition to federal legislation.

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