Sofia’s choice


“In the year since the Trump administration officially rescinded its family separation policy, more than 900 migrant children have been removed from an accompanying adult at the southern border.” – NY Times, July 31, 2019

In 1943, Sophie Zawistowska and her two small children, Jan and Eva, were taken to Auschwitz. Here a Nazi officer ordered her to choose which of her children was to be taken away for immediate gassing; the other was taken to a children’s camp inside Auschwitz where he was murdered months later. That the officer made Sophie chose which of her children was to be gassed immediately elevated an act of monstrous cruelty to utmost depravity, a sadistic act that stands out as unique even among a regime noted for its degeneracy. Never able to escape the horror, Sophie killed herself three years later.

Since William Styron’s classic novel “Sophie’s Choice” was published 40 years ago, the idea of all-powerful uniformed officials seizing children from their parents for whatever reason — legal or illegal, for incarceration or worse, without explanation or even warning, arbitrarily, with no recourse of any kind — has come to be seen as a particularly evil example of official cruelty. The child has done nothing and is told nothing and is in many cases too young to understand if they were told. They do not know if the separation from their parents is temporary or permanent. They are cast into unfamiliar and terrifying circumstances without family or friends. Mental health experts say the trauma they suffer will likely affect their lives forever.

It is not much better for the parents. In many cases they are refugees fleeing terror in their own lands, seeking asylum and a chance for a better life for themselves and their children. They have come to America, a traditional safe haven for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses. That is not the America they find today. A Honduran father whose 3-year-old son was taken away from him on our Southern border hanged himself in his jail cell.

Is the Auschwitz analogy unfair? Yes, if measured by results. It is less clear if seen in terms of attitude. Witnesses and journalists report cases in which ICE officers tell children they will never see their parents again. The Texas Civil Rights Project reports some children were taken away from their parents under the pretense they’d be getting a bath. In Auschwitz, they said it was a shower, not mentioning they were using Zyklon-B gas, not water. It’s probably unfair to cite that, too.

The cries of protest that rose when this practice of separating parents and children was first uncovered over a year ago persuaded the Trump Administration to announce they were ending it. They also disclaimed all responsibility for it. Trump, lying shamelessly, blamed the unprecedented policy on Democrats. Then-Attorney General Sessions relied on Scripture: “I would cite to you the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of government.” No previous administration believed that any law required any such policy as separating children from their parents. It was not law but the Trump-Sessions policy, their unprecedented “zero-tolerance policy,” that alone was responsible.

Trump and the administration did not terminate the practice, of course; they merely took it underground, out of sight, adding nuances along the way. Parents were sometimes arrested as criminals and locked up or sent out of the country without their children; according to documents filed in federal court, their crime could be, and sometimes was, a traffic ticket. In a refinement worthy of Doestoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, a 3-year-old Honduran girl named Sofia, who had early in life suffered a heart attack, was told this month by a Border Patrol agent that her family was being broken up — one parent would be allowed to stay, the other was being sent back to Mexico — and she had to choose which parent she would go with: Sofia’s Choice. Mercifully, in this one case a judge intervened and allowed the family to stay together, in America. 

Clearly, it’s not that Trump thought the separation policy was wrong, only inexpedient and not to be publicized.

What have we become? Cannot every one of us say that taking young children from their parents is not only inhumane, it is anti-human? It is not only unAmerican, it is anti-American. Every time a child is forcibly and arbitrarily taken from a parent and locked up, it diminishes us all.
Please, everyone, protest this evil, mindless cruelty while we still have the voices to do it.

David W. Rintels is past president of the Writers Guild of America, West, and author of the stage play ‘Clarence Darrow.’  His adaptation of ‘Sophie’s Choice’ has been optioned for theatrical production in 2019. He lives in West Tisbury.