“Immigrants, Refugees, and Justice”



Criminology and Theology

Illegal immigration

Law on Refugee Status

Runaways, Immigrants, and Refugees

Decades ago I worked for a Juvenile Probation office in a large southwestern city.  We worked with juvenile age children and youth who had been arrested by police.  Their offenses ranged from runaway to violent crimes.  Youth arrested for burglary, theft, drugs, and assault charges were easier to deal with.  That is, our job was clearly defined, most kids admitted their guilt, their parents supported our actions, and the Juvenile Court decision was quick, clear, and final in most cases.  

The runaway cases were difficult and perplexing.  First, running away from home is only a “status offense” for juveniles; not even a “misdemeanor.”   We just warned them of the dangers of running away and took them back home to their parents!

Runaway youth pose a challenge for several reasons.  It is not a crime for which the Juvenile Court has jurisdiction and Probation Officers have no power to force any behavior change.  We asked, “why are they running away?”  We learned that many runaway kids are not just seeking independence and thrills.  They are seeking safety from dysfunctional and threatening family settings.  Home visits confirmed juveniles’ stories of mental, physical, and sexual abuse; parents’ drug abuse, neglect, and lack of adequate food and nutrition.  Our intervention was limited to a report and referral to Family Protective Services in the most serious cases; but that was neither an immediate or long-term solution to the problem.

I see a parallel between runaway juveniles, immigrants, and refugees.  In every generation and in every nation, persons have sought a better life and taken risks by “running away” from their homes.  Many are desperate, escaping war, conflict, and unsafe living conditions.  Others are in search of jobs in order to feed and clothe their children.  The fact that thousands of Americans hire them and depend on this source of cheap labor for jobs that few Americans want to do has encouraged the flow of illegal immigrants.


The Law Against Illegal Entry

Entering the U.S. illegally is a crime; but is classified only as a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine ($50 to $250) or up to 6 months in jail for the first offense.  The misdemeanor classification and light punishment is evidence that the U.S. Code does not regard illegal entry as a serious crime.

The federal government responds to illegal immigration through the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Following their arrest, persons charged with illegal entry are entitled to have their cases heard by an Immigration Judge. Presidential administrations and Congress have taken different approaches over the years in responding to illegal immigration.  Our current administration has significantly elevated the enforcement of illegal immigration.

Are Illegal Immigrants Dangerous?

Despite the claims of some Americans, illegal entry poses no public safety risk to citizens.  Are they “dangerous”?  No, the vast majority are not, as documented by crime statistics and several research studies.

Illegal Immigrants versus Refugees

According to the International Justice Resource Center, it is not a crime to seek refuge when fleeing war-like conflict and threats to one’s personal safety.  Modern refugee law has its origins in the aftermath of World War II.   Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted in 1948, guarantees the right to seek asylum in other countries.  The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees establishes the definition of a refugee and the rights afforded to those granted refugee status.

The 1951 Convention does not define how nations are to determine whether a person meets the definition of a refugee. That is left to each nation to develop, so there are disparities among national governments.  Despite national differences the overall goal of international law on refugees and human rights is to provide protection to individuals forced to flee their homes because their countries are unwilling or unable to protect them.


Runaways and Immigrants Seeking Refuge

The same question applies to juvenile runaways and persons seeking refuge: 

“Why would anyone leave a home where there is shelter, food, water, and familiar surroundings—for a “runaway life” with no guarantee of shelter, food, water, and the constant threat of being exploited, assaulted, and arrested?”

The only reasonable answer is that things must be pretty bad back there at home for anyone to leave it for parts unknown.

Biblical Justice and the “Alien”

Holy Scripture has plenty to say about “aliens” (from Hebrew nokri) that also means “immigrant” or “foreigner” in English.  “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21- CEB).

“Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens.  You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt…” (Leviticus 19:34-CEB).

“You shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice…. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:17-18 -NRSV).

“Karl Barth and Prison Ministry”

Tags:  Karl Bart

Criminology and Theology

The name Karl Barth comes foremost to mind in discussions about theology and theologians today.  But many students of theology are not aware of Barth’s connection with criminology.

Karl Barth (1886-1968) is generally regarded as the most outstanding theologian of the twentieth century.  As the main author of The Barmen Confession he was the intellectual leader of the German Confessing Church that resisted the Third Reich of Adolph Hitler.  Barth taught theology for nearly five decades. After he was removed from his faculty position at Bonn by the Nazis in late 1934, Barth moved to Basel where he taught until 1962.

He is best known for his multi-volume work, Church Dogmatics, and his Commentary on Romans.  Karl Barth wrote many other books and essays in theological journals; and he can be credited for thousands more pages written about his theological contributions by scholars and students of theology.

Barth is less well known for his prison ministry.  While teaching at the University of Basel, Barth regularly visited and preached to the inmates at Basel Prison.  A collection of his prayers and sermons in the prison chapel in Basel between 1954 and 1959 have been compiled in Deliverance to the Captives.




One sermon resonated especially with me.  A sermon entitled “The Criminals With Him” was based on a single scripture verse: “They crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:33).

“They crucified him with the criminals.  Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?  As a matter of fact, both are true!  One thing is certain: here they hang all three, Jesus and the criminals, one at the right and one at the left, all three exposed to the same public abuse, to the same interminable pain, to the same slow and irrevocable death throes.  Like Jesus, these two criminals had been arrested somewhere, locked up and sentenced by some judge in the course of the previous few days.  And now they hang on their crosses with him and find themselves in solidarity and fellowship with him.”  ….

“They crucified him with the criminals. Do you know what this implies?  Don’t be too surprised if I tell you that this was the first Christian fellowship, the first certain, indissoluble and indestructible Christian community.  Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance. ….  To live by this promise is to be a Christian community.  The two criminals were the first certain Christian community” (Barth, Deliverance to the Captives, pp. 76-77).

This great theologian who wrote volumes on all of the doctrines of the Christian Church also declared the Word of God in simple, clear language to “the common man.”  Few of us would envy the day-to-day lives of those serving time in prison; but the residents of the Basel Prison sixty years ago were privileged to hear the gospel message proclaimed by one of the greatest preachers and theologians of the century.

God calls us all to minister to the hungry, the sick, and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:34-40).  Karl Barth knew his calling.  He put down his pen, left the university and declared the good news to prisoners in his “sermons in a Swiss prison.”  Barth’s prison ministry serves as an example for our own ministry to prisoners.