CNN | 2018-8-15 | Español

Padma Lakshmi: I could have been that immigrant child torn from her mother

Updated: 11:05 PM ET, Sun June 17, 2018

Editor's Note: Padma Lakshmi is a New York Times best-selling author and host/ executive producer of "Top Chef." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) - I was two years old when my mother left me in India with my grandparents to come to the United States. She was fleeing an abusive marriage, and needed to find a job and a safe place for us to land. I didn't understand.

Every day, I'd sit on a step outside our house waiting for my mom to come back from work in America. The anguish of separation may have even contributed to a skin condition I developed around that time -- terrible blisters all over my body in the summer heat, so bad my head had to be shaved.

Today, I am far removed from that lost little girl who desperately missed her mother. But as I watch the Trump administration forcibly separating children from parents as they make their way to the United States looking for refuge, my heart breaks.

According to government figures, more than 700 children were separated from their parents from October 2017 through April 2018, including more than 100 children under the age of 4. Many of them came from violent countries in Central America to seek asylum in the United States and presented themselves to immigration officials without breaking any rules.

That was before Donald Trump's administration officially instituted a new "zero tolerance" policy to criminally prosecute migrants who enter the United States without authorization, even those seeking asylum -- and remove their children. It's a policy that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has called a "tough deterrent," remarking nonchalantly that "the children will be taken care of -- put into foster care or whatever."

In just two weeks in May, the US government prosecuted 638 parents, leading to their separation from 658 children. If the number were averaged out over that time period, it would amount to about 47 children each day being torn from their parents.

One of the parents featured in news stories reminds me of my mother. Like my mother, she came to this country to protect her child from an abusive partner. For her, the abuse was physical, instead of the emotional abuse my mother endured. The woman told a reporter and immigration officials that her partner had beaten her, cut her, assaulted her with guns, and threatened to kill her and her child. When she told immigration agents that she wished to seek asylum, she said the officials were disinterested.

"You're going to be deported," she said they later told her. "And your child will stay here."

After one night in a Border Patrol processing station, officials took her child away. The woman collapsed to her knees, sobbing and begging them to allow her child to stay with her. Officials watched indifferently, she said, as the child screamed.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that for a young child, even a short period of unexplained separation from a parent can have devastating effects. According to the pediatricians' group, prolonged exposure to such highly stressful situations can produce toxic stress, which can cause irreparable harm. It can disrupt children's brain development and adversely affect their long-term health -- leading to learning deficits and chronic conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even heart disease.

I know from experience that when a child is in her mother's arms -- even in chaotic circumstances -- all is right in the world. When that bond is broken, the child is unmoored. The temporary loss of my mother affected my confidence and my ability to see the world in a positive light. Even today, people close to me tease me that I'm always doom and gloom, that my mind goes straight to the worst-case scenario.

When I finally came to the United States at 4 years old, I remember catching my first glimpse of my mother at JFK airport, so pretty and carrying an afghan she had knitted for me -- and thinking the world was whole again.

I keep thinking how different our story might be if we came seeking asylum today: I could be that child, pulled from her mother's arms by strangers, screaming in agony, confusion and terror. And my mother could be that woman -- bereft, stunned -- who lost the one thing that in migrating she was trying to protect.

I am not a policy expert or an official. But it's time for people like me and you -- parents, Americans -- to stand up against this unconscionable policy that devastates the most basic and fundamental relationship human beings know.


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