Berkeley’s Irish Summers

A U.S. guest worker visa to promote cultural exchange helps fill the college town with international pilgrims once a year.

Although Berkeley’s college population grows smaller with the onset of summer, Cal hangouts like Pappy’s Grill and Sports Bar can still be surprisingly crowded. Consider late Wednesday nights and early Thursday mornings, when Pappy’s is often full of young Irish people having a night on the town.

During the summer, Pappy’s hosts “Irish Wednesdays,” in which the tri-level restaurant and bar opens its downstairs nightclub to anyone over the age of 18. For a few hours each Wednesday night, both the upstairs bar area and the lower-level nightclub are typically full of Irish students visiting Berkeley on J-1 Visas. One Pappy’s employee calls it “The Irish Summer.”

And it’s not just Pappy’s. Robert Nielsen, who visited Berkeley 6 years ago on a J-1 Visa but currently resides in Ireland, remembers his first visit to the neighboring Kip’s Bar and Grill.

“We arrived earlier than some of the other J-1s; we were some of the first ones to arrive,” Nielsen recalled. “Kips, on the first night, we thought ‘This is nice, a really cool American place now.’ And after a few weeks it was just an Irish bar. Like it was just wall-to-wall Irish people. I remember going there one night and there was a hundred people and I think maybe two of them were Americans. I remember bumping into Irish people who I didn’t even know were on holidays who were there. I’m surprised that the J-1 thing isn’t more familiar because it’s almost an invasion, kind of. Walking around on the street and you see just loads of Irish people everywhere. All over Berkeley.”

If it’s an invasion, most people would view it as benign. Every summer, a huge population of strapping young Irish people comes to the Bay Area without much notice. But once you see them, you cannot unsee them. Tells are: men in short shorts, wearing Gaelic Athletic Association jerseys, and speaking with fantastic accents. Just as large numbers of Cal students are leaving campus for the summer, the J-1 visa holders arrive to inject Berkeley with life and economic stimulus.

“It’s almost like an Irish tradition,” said J-1 veteran Cormac Clancy Ruiz, a Dubliner who just revisited the Bay Area for a third time. “It’s just something that you always had on the back of your mind to do,” Ruiz said. “It’s something that everyone always has done, they go to somewhere in the U.S. for the summer.”

The J-1 Visa program enables international visitors to come to the United States for travel and experience. There are 15 different types of the visa, which can be valid for periods ranging from a few weeks to several years. The Summer Work Travel Visa used by most of these visitors to Berkeley is a 90-day work visa for students seeking summer jobs. Summer Work Travel has been a category in the State Department’s Exchange Visitor Program since 1963, according to department spokesman Michael Cavey.

“The primary goal of the Exchange Visitor Program is to allow participants the opportunity to engage broadly with Americans, share their culture, strengthen their English language abilities, and — if there is a work or training component — learn new skills or build skills that will help them in future careers,” Cavey said.

Visitors must sign up with one of 38 officially designated sponsoring organizations. They have names like American Work Adventures or Camp Counselors USA/Work Experience USA, both of which are based in the Bay Area. Those sponsors in turn help the visaholder obtain a summer job with large seasonal businesses such as McDonalds, Disney, Hilton, or Ben & Jerrys, or smaller regional employers like CREAM or the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

Although the Summer Work Travel visa is offered to citizens of many nations, and brought more than 5,700 students to California last year, in California it is disproportionately used by Irish nationals. Of the 1,009 students who came to the Bay Area last year, government data shows that 595 of them were Irish citizens. Over the past five years, 4,778 Bay Area visitors have used the visa, and well over half of them, 2,613, were Irish citizens.

Cities fluctuate in popularity. But in 2015, an article by the Irish Independent estimated that about 35 percent of all Irish J-1 holders were coming to the Bay Area. “Some years, some cities are very popular and everyone is going,” Nielsen recalled. “So I think the year before it had been Chicago and that year it was San Francisco. And pretty much everyone I knew who did J-1, they went to San Francisco.”

Yet few Americans know about the visa. Nielsen recalls overhearing his former American colleagues talking about the hiring of Irish citizens visiting with the visa and asking, “Hey man it’s crazy how many Irish people are over here; is it like another potato famine going on?”

Laura Milner, who came to Berkeley on a J-1 Visa four years ago, said the Bay Area is particularly popular for obvious reasons. The economy is healthy, and the summer weather is fairly mild, (although no doubt less mild than many visitors expected). And of course, Berkeley offers access to many American destinations that appeal to tourists of a certain age. On weekends, visa holders can take trips to the city, Tahoe, Yosemite, Santa Cruz, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles.

“It’s seen nearly as a right of passage for Irish students,” said Milner, who has now returned to Ireland. “Everyone goes; you don’t want to be left out!”

Of course, Irish travel to Berkeley and the Bay Area is a tradition that long predates the J-1 Visa. “The Irish Diaspora is one of the biggest in the world in terms of volume of the country,” noted Ruiz’ former Berkeley roommate, Liam Farrelly, who just completed his second J-1 trip. “Ireland’s population is like 4.8 million, and in terms of globally how many people have Irish heritage, it’s an obscene number.” In fact, more than 30 million Americans claim Irish ancestry.

And as Ruiz noted, the City of Berkeley itself is named after the 18th-century Irish bishop and philosopher George Berkeley, who attended his and Farrelly’s Dublin alma mater, Trinity College.

“It’s just been a tradition I suppose,” Ruiz said. “If you’re going West Coast, you’re going to Berkeley.”

Not surprisingly, given the cost of Bay Area housing, most J-1 recipients live with several roommates, especially after spending money on their sponsor, visa, and travel. So over the three-month summer visit, J-1 holders typically pack themselves into apartments and vacant student housing as they work their seasonal jobs as waitresses and bartenders, camp counselors and bike-rental agents. The conditions are not particularly comfortable, and come as a shock to some Americans, but they seem to be something that the visitors themselves expected, and take in stride.

Ashley Ferry is an ethnically Irish Californian who used to live in San Francisco and served as a contact for J-1 holders, hosting them between their arrival in the United States and their move to summer housing. During his career as a temporary J-1 guardian, he has hosted 10 Irish J-1 visaholders and is extremely upset by their typical housing conditions. He calls some of the conditions that he has witnessed “subhuman,” and wonders why the companies that sponsor the visitors, as well as the Irish and American governments, allow such conditions. But Ferry also acknowledges that the visitors themselves never seem to be as upset by their conditions.

“They seem to just rent out random places like frat houses with no furniture,” Ferry said. “These kids will arrive with absolutely nothing and find themselves sleeping on the floor, and their possessions in plastic bags. That’s what I saw, and it was appalling. Now why they wouldn’t supply basic necessities like a bureau or a bed is beyond me. A cheap hotel doesn’t not give you a bed so I’m just a little surprised that the Irish government is allowing this, because they’re putting their kids in danger.”

Ferry’s comment was a veiled reference to the tragic 2015 death of five Irish J-1 visaholders and one Irish-American when the Berkeley apartment balcony on which they were partying collapsed. Seven other people were injured in the incident, which attracted more attention to Berkeley’s Irish summers than any event before or since. Although the balcony’s poor construction quality was citied as the cause of the disaster, the deaths also shed an unflattering light on the party culture often associated with the annual Irish pilgrimage.

Ruiz acknowledged that some students do come and spend much of their time partying and acting wildly, which makes things difficult for other J-1 visaholders who follow in their wake. “Definitely for stuff like housing we found that was an issue, where people when they found out you’re Irish would be like ‘Well, we don’t really want you staying here, because you’re just gonna ruin the place.'”

But such stereotypes don’t appear to have reduced the numbers of Irish visitors. Nielsen recalled that when he lived in Berkeley, he shared a place on Virginia Street with five young men. There was only one bed and most of them slept on the floor or the couch. They later moved to another house where the six of them and two female J-1 roommates shared just two beds between the eight of them.

“We were just all on air mattresses in there,” he said. “My room was literally wall to wall with four air mattresses.” But he liked it because he got along well with everyone and recalled the space as spacious, noting that many J-1 visaholders room with 10 or more people. He called such conditions “part of the adventure.”

Indeed, Ruiz and Farrelly both came back this year for another round in the Bay Area on a longer 12-month Irish Work Travel Visa.

“My first year coming over there was a J-1 coordinator,” Ruiz said. “And last year, I was the J-1 coordinator. And as part of that you’re trying to organize different events to bring the Americans and the Irish together. Your job was very accommodating and they went out of their way absolutely to make sure we felt okay.”

Unsurprisingly, the Summer Work Travel program has not escaped scrutiny from the Trump administration. The J-1 Visa has been criticized for taking jobs away from Americans, and also concerns that some visaholders are exploited by employers.

“The undeniable conclusion is that these J-1 programs, an initiative once envisioned as a tool of diplomacy, has become little more than a source of cheap labor for employers,” The Southern Poverty Law Center says on its website, noting for instance that employers don’t have to pay such workers payroll taxes. A 2010 investigation noted that visaholders often pay their sponsors for the privilege of landing a menial job.

“You had a huge amount of expenses straightaway so you had to get work as fast as you could, to pay it off,” Nielsen recalled. He said unemployment was a huge problem in Ireland at the time he first came over, and J-1 recipients like him were willing to take just about any job at all. “Otherwise you would have been in trouble.”

“We’re not going in with high expectations,” Nielsen said. “You’re going to be working hard. For example, one of my other friends … he was working on a construction site, and he was doing it completely illegally, like he had no license, he had no training. He was not supposed to be on it, but he was told just show up with steel-toe boots and ‘we’ll let you work at night in some construction site’ and I remember him telling me about it and it was ridiculously dangerous. But I think he was going over there with not high expectations.”

Nielsen said he had a difficult experience while working for the San Francisco bike rental company Blazing Saddles. He said that he and his coworkers, who were almost all Irish visitors on a J-1 Visa, were paid minimum wage and felt a bit exploited. And at times, he said, his job was dangerous. He was asked to move bikes around the hilly city through traffic by riding one while gripping another one alongside. Given his tenuous status as a foreign worker, he said the idea of refusing never crossed his mind — because he likely would have been fired. “They tell you to do something you do it you do it, as fast as you can.” Nielsen said he fell once while doing this but was not injured.

Another J-1 visaholder was not so lucky. Ferry recalled that a friend of one of his Irish cousins also worked at Blazing Saddles, where he was asked to transport two bicycles at once. While the visaholder, Marcus, was doing so, he fell and was badly injured. “He fell over and really hurt his groin. And they did send him to the emergency hospital on Venice Avenue and that was about it. He was on his own after that.” Ferry said Marcus did not work again during the summer.

Blazing Saddles owner Jeff Sears said J-1 visaholders sometimes make up 25 percent of his summer staff, and that such employees have a “very low” turnover rate. “Our J-1 staff members have had very few injuries over the years,” Sears said. “I’m not aware of any injuries due to riding a bike and holding a second one.” He added that all of his J-1 staff members are covered by the company’s workers compensation policy.

However, another former Blazing Saddles employee who came to the Bay Area twice on the J-1 Visa and has since moved back to Ireland said, “My time there was very enjoyable and rewarding.” This employee, who asked not to be identified, said, “I believe it’s a job that you either hate it or love it. … It was tough, but you knew you did a good job at the end of the day.”

In 2012, the State Department capped the total number of J-1 Visas at 109,000 participants and limited the jobs that visaholders could apply for. Measures also were taken to make sure that American workers could not be displaced from their jobs by visaholders. However, President Trump has explicitly called out the J-1 Visa program and proposed eliminating it altogether. In 2017, the administration said it would review the program, citing concerns about Americans losing summer job opportunities, and J-1 participants overstaying their welcome or returning to the United State several times on the visa.

So far nothing has come of it. “While Trump’s 2016 campaign immigration plan called for major changes to the J-1 program, his administration has left the program intact for now, thankfully,” said Ian P. Band, an immigration lawyer with the Washington D.C. law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth.

Stewart Lawrence, an independent policy consultant who has written widely on immigration and immigration reform, noted that the J-1 Visa is not the only guest-worker program in discussion, and appears safe for now.

“Progress is stalled,” Lawrence said. “Trump’s in a bit of a political vise. His business allies want more of these guest workers, on less-restrictive terms, but his nativist allies in the conservative wing of the party want them eliminated or cut back. We’re entering an election year and Trump’s especially worried about mobilizing and protecting his working-class base which is averse to the foreign-born taking American jobs.

“What’s happening behind the scenes is that Jared Kushner is quietly preparing a bill to overhaul the current visa system, both for immigrants and visas for so-called visitors or guest workers,” he added. “They will likely try to promote a major bill next year, which will help show that Trump really is committed to immigrants — just not illegal ones. Even if it fails, which is likely, it will be very useful politically.”

But in the meantime, the J-1 Visa program lives on. And unless escalating Bay Area housing prices send the party elsewhere, Berkeley and San Francisco will benefit each summer from the presence of these Irish pilgrims. Nielsen, Ruiz, Farrelly, Milner, and others all say they would not only recommend the J-1 Visa program to others, but do it again themselves.

“The terms of the J-1 Visa define it as kind of like a cultural exchange,” said Farrelly, who worked with Ruiz last summer as a camp counselor at UC Berkeley’s Blue Camp. “You’re here to work, but the main thing is that you get to know the American culture and embrace it. And at one point there was a guy from the U.S. government who came to check in on the J-1s and check how the setup was. And the camp definitely made a huge effort to arrange camping trips and after-work activities that would get everyone to mix and get to know each other.”

Some of the Americans who work alongside the Irish make friends with them, of course, and go on to facilitate cultural exchanges back in the other direction by visiting their J-1 friends in their home countries. And of course some J-1 recipients like Farrelly and Ruiz, who both studied tech, hope to eventually relocate to the Bay Area, whether to work in the tech industry — or just enjoy California.

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