If you saw Sophie’s Choice (1982), you will remember the film’s climax. It’s unforgettable. A young Polish woman, Zofia “Sophie” Zawistowski (Meryl Streep), arrives at Auschwitz with her two small children. There, with the Nazis’ characteristic blend of sadism and ingenuity, a camp officer presents her with a choice: one of Sophie’s children will be sent to the gas; the other will live. It is up to Sophie to decide which. Sophie takes too long to decide and both of her children are led off to the gas chamber.
The Trump Administration has come up with a new twist on Sophie’s choice. On July 15, National Public Radio’s Morning Edition aired an update on a Honduran family—two parents and three children—who had fled gang violence in their country. A US Border Patrol agent at a holding facility in El Paso, Texas told the family’s 3-year old daughter that only one of her parents could remain with her and her two siblings in the US. The Border Patrol agent asked the little girl which parent she wanted to remain with her in the US.
The little girl chose her mother. As their father was being led away, Sofi and her siblings started crying. The border patrol officer, who we must think missed out on a brilliant career in the SS, snapped at Sofi: “Why are you crying? You told us you picked your mother.”
I have left something out. The little girl is named Sofia. Her parents call her Sofi.
Sofi suffers from a serious heart condition. Thanks to the intervention of a caring physician with the Department of Homeland Security, Sofi’s family is still in the US and together. For now. Many of the other migrant families from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are not so lucky. The Trump Administration instituted a policy early on of separating parents and children who arrive at the US-Mexico border looking for asylum. In June 2018, ProPublica released heart-breaking audio of US Border Patrol agents mocking migrant children in detention who were crying for their parents. “We have an orchestra here, right?” says one of the agents on the tape. “What we need is a conductor.”
The Trump Administration has not stopped at separating children from their parents. In late 2018, under the threat of the big stick of US tariffs, Mexico signed on to an arrangement under which some applicants for US asylum will wait in Mexico until their cases can be heard. Migrant Protection Protocols is the program’s name, but it is colloquially known as “Remain in Mexico.” Remain there the migrants will. US courts currently face a backlog of nearly 900,000 applications for asylum.
On July 15, the Trump Administration announced that migrants will have to apply for asylum from the countries they pass through on their way to the US. With few exceptions, migrants who fail to do so will have their asylum applications denied when they reach the US. This move by the Trump Administration is predicted to drastically reduce the number of successful applications for US asylum. Immigrant rights groups have announced they plan to challenge the new policy in the courts.
I don’t want to overwork the comparison of Trump policies to Nazi Germany. For one thing, not many aspiring dictatorships want everyone to have a gun. And the Trump Administration isn’t killing refugees; at least, not intentionally. Deaths from neglect are another matter. At least twelve migrants, children and adults, are known to have died in US custody since September 2018. Don’t expect them to be the last.
Still, if the jackboot fits… Journalist Fintan O’Toole calls the rupturing of families and the throwing of babies into cages, “trial runs for fascism.” “Fascism,” O’Toole writes, “doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy.” It has to be introduced little by little. “You have to … inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty.” O’Toole writes that President Donald Trump is an “ignoramus,” but “he has an acute understanding of one thing: test marketing.” O’Toole imagines Trump thinking “let’s see how my fans feel about crying babies in cages.” If babies in cages “sell,” the Administration can ratchet up the cruelty. To judge from Republican silence, Trump’s fans are just fine with crying babies in cages.
Trump’s treatment of migrants is a disgrace, particularly in a nation that can’t stop gassing about how Christian it is. If the Republicans want us to stop comparing them to Nazis, they need to stop acting like Nazis. It’s Trump’s choice.