Immigrants Face a Sophie’s Choice

Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice”


Republicans have been outdoing themselves in the inhumanity department recently, joining some dubious literary company. I’m not the only one who thought of Sophie’s Choice upon encountering the following news item:

In an attempt to deter illegal immigration from Mexico, the Department of Homeland Security is considering separating children from parents caught crossing the border, Secretary John Kelly said Monday on CNN.

The proposal would result in detention for the parent while any accompanying children would be placed in the care of the government or sent to live with any relatives in the United States.

Currently, women and children generally are held together in one of three detention centers — two in Texas and one in Pennsylvania — for a few days or weeks before being released to wait for an immigration judge to decide their cases.

Splitting up families is meant to serve as a deterrent to illegal border crossing.

Here’s the moment of crisis in Styron’s novel:

“You may keep one of your children.”
Bitte?” said Sophie.
“You may keep one of your children,” he repeated. “The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?”
“You mean, I have to choose?”
“You’re a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege—a choice.”
Her thought processes dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. “I can’t choose! I can’t choose!” She began to scream. Oh, how she recalled her own screams! Tormented angels never screeched so loudly above hell’s pandemonium. “Ich kann nich wahlen!” she screamed.
The doctor was aware of unwanted attention. “Shut up!” he ordered. “Hurry now and choose. Choose, goddamnit, or I’ll send them both over there. Quick!”
She could not believe any of this. She could not believe that she was now kneeling on the hurtful, abrading concrete, drawing her children toward her so smotheringly tight that she felt that their flesh might be engrafted to her even through layers of clothes. Her disbelief was total, deranged. It was disbelief reflected in the eyes of the gaunt, waxy-skinned young Rotten-fuhrer, the doctor’s aide, to whom she inexplicably found herself looking upward in supplication. He appeared stunned, and he returned her gaze with a wide-eyed baffled expression, as if to say: I can’t understand this either.
“Don’t make me choose,” she heard herself plead in a whisper. “I can’t choose.”

Does DHS reassure themselves that they’re not Nazis because they’re not sending the children to gas chambers? This is true. Instead, the families’ Sophie’s Choice involves either (1) returning immediately to the violence they are fleeing with their children or (2) taking their chances in the immigration system separated from their children.

How hard must hearts become to carry out such tactics? What toll will this take upon us as a nation?

Item #2 calls for the lacerating irony of William Blake. The Republican Congressman Roger Marshall in the following story, believe it or not, is an obstetrician:

The health care website Stat highlighted Marshall’s role in Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act in a profile published last week. Marshall’s comments about the poor in that article have gained national attention.

“Just like Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be with us.’ … There is a group of people that just don’t want health care and aren’t going to take care of themselves,” Marshall is quoted as saying when asked about Medicaid expansion, something which was made possible by the ACA.

“Just, like, homeless people. … I think just morally, spiritually, socially, (some people) just don’t want health care,” Marshall continued. “The Medicaid population, which is (on) a free credit card, as a group, do probably the least preventive medicine and taking care of themselves and eating healthy and exercising.

There’s nothing like invoking Christ–and misunderstanding his words–to justify refusing medical attention to the sick. Reverend William Barber had the best response when he said, “Jesus, if he did anything, he gave out free healthcare.”

Blake saw red whenever religion was used to keep the poor down. He was especially appalled at the Church of England’s silence about London chimney sweeps, whose occupation was a death sentence since the coal dust meant that they wouldn’t reach adolescence. For our parallel situation, a study by two public health professors has calculated that repeal of Obamacare will lead to 43,000 deaths annually.

In “The Chimney-Sweeper,” the child is so young that he can’t yet pronounce “sweep” as he advertises his services.

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying! “weep! weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? Say!”—
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

“Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smiled among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

“And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and His priest and king,
Who made up a heaven of our misery.”

As a Congressman in the world’s wealthiest country, Marshall would do better to quote Matthew 19:24: “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

But let’s end instead with the final line of Blake’s “Holy Thursday,” which can apply to both the immigrants and the people in need of medical care:

Then cherish pity lest you drive an angel from your door.

This entry was posted in Blake (William), Styron (William) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

  • Sign up for weekly newsletter

    Your email will not be shared or sold.
    * = required field

    powered by MailChimp!