Immigration Rights Activist Discusses Civil Initiative - Hamilton College
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Immigration Rights Activist Discusses Civil Initiative


John Fife
John Fife
John Fife, life-long immigration rights activist, presented a lecture, “Civil Initiative: Organizing for Social Change,” on Friday, Sept. 11. The lecture was sponsored by the Dean of Faculty and the Diversity and Social Justice Project. 

Fife began the lecture by delineating the difference between “civil initiative” and the other modes of implementing social change or reform, such as civil disobedience and protest. According to Fife, civil initiative is the legitimate right and ethical responsibilty of civil society to protect victims of human rights violations when the government is the violator. 

Fife outlined his personal experience with civil initiative, which began in response to the U.S. government’s capture and deportation of refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980’s. A minister of Tuscon’s Southside Presbyterian Church, Fife began the civil intiative movement by being the first to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants from El Salvador in 1981. Eventually, civil initiative expanded to churches, synagogues and universities nation wide, providing safe haven to thousands of Central Americans. 

In 1994, U.S. border enforcement strategy, Operation Gatekeeper, sealed off urban areas from migration therby forcing immigrants to migrate through hazardous desert conditions and resulting in thousands of deaths. Fife saw this as yet another opportunity to establish a social base for civil initiative. In response to the rising number of deaths on the Arizona border, Fife helped found the Samaritans, a humanitarian organization that provides water, food and medical assistance to migrants in distress. He was also a key player in organizing a diverse group of humanitarian organizations including No More Deaths to maintain camps and water stations along the border during the summer months. Fife still works closely with No More Deaths in an attempt to end the death of immigrants along the United States-Mexico border. 

Fife concluded by asking listeners to consider the implication of being citizens of a nation violating human rights. According to Fife, good citizenship requires that we disobey laws when they are connected to human rights abuses. In order to work toward a society rooted in justice, citizens possess the ethical responsibility and legal right to practice civil intiative.

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