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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!"


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