When my grandpa, Gurcharan Singh Gill, was 18, he left his home in rural India to attend college in the United States. It was a hard time for his family: The winter before he left, his older sister and baby brother had both died. My grandpa remembers his mother crying when it was time for him to leave, asking “do you have to go, too?”
In the United States, my grandpa made history as the first Sikh convert to Mormonism. Both faiths value family highly, and after he got married, his Mormon relatives-in-law helped him arrange to bring his seven living brothers into the country one by one.
My grandpa’s brother Bikram was the first to come. I doubt he would have gotten many points in a merit-based immigration system, coming as he did from a home that didn’t even have an indoor kitchen. But Bikram studied hard and worked hard and gradually became one of the world’s leading experts on wheat. Unless you have celiac disease, you’ve almost certainly benefited from his research. Though he wouldn’t have looked like much on paper when he arrived, he became a huge contributor in the long term.
He’s hardly the only one to make valuable contributions to American society in the chain my grandfather started. Members of our family have developed American cities as engineers and as businesspeople. Their work on farms has put food on your tables. A disproportionate number of them have served as teachers in struggling areas to reach this country’s at-risk kids.
How did this happen? How did one farm in India contribute professors and professionals to this country along with people who have cared for its land and for its children?
I believe it’s because of chain migration. It’s been easier for members of my extended family to succeed because we were allowed to come here together and help each other. Anyone with the drive and ambition to build a new life in an unfamiliar world has the potential for great success, but the chance of reaching that potential increases when they have loved ones close to lean on in times of trial — helping them through the growing pains of getting to greatness.
My grandpa was there for each of his brothers as each got settled and found his own way to give back to the community here. Their children were there in a dramatic way for me two years ago. When I went out of state for cancer treatment, they took me into their homes and nursed me through the hardest ordeal of my life.
I can’t imagine what my life would be like without chain migration, which I see not as a problem, but as a policy that recognizes the power of families to strengthen societies. And next time you eat a piece of bread, I hope you’ll take a moment to think of the Gill family and be grateful for chain migration, too.
James Goldberg is an award-winning essayist, poet and playwright, whose works include "The Five Books of Jesus" and "Let Me Drown with Moses."