The J1 exchange visitor visa has been a staple of Irish youth culture since 1966. As global uproar about the recent Uvalde gun massacre continues, is it any wonder why it feels rather unfitting to be toasting to a J1 visa right now?
It’s 08.45 am on 42 Elgin Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4. I know I have successfully reached the US Embassy when I begin to sight flocks of early 20-somethings scrambling with folders to join the queue. My appointment is at 9 am and I fear missing it due to the enormity of hopeful J1ers ahead of me until I am ordered to advance by a straight-faced security agent, where I am then asked to hand over my mobile.
While waiting outside, I get flashbacks from just short of two years ago when I had stood in the exact same spot alongside many other young people in protest of the 2020 George Floyd shooting. I remember the national backlash on social media and the shame induced on attendees of the protest during the pandemic. I also remember the frustration that I felt for those who failed to respectfully understand and match the global significance of this historical tragedy with Covid-19.
Clutching my critical DS-160 visa paper, a wave of excitement hits as the US flag gazes up at me from the page. This wave is abruptly deflected, however, with the morning’s gruesome news brief. Unfortunately, I’m not thinking about cycling down Navy Pier with my best friend. I am thinking about the 19 innocent school children who just lost their lives. A rush of guilt, cold feet and “Should I have chosen Canada” hits me. I start questioning my choice and the energy spent chasing the chance to temporarily relocate to this country. Looking back at the sizeable queue, I wonder if anyone else shares similar doubts.
Just three weeks ago I was sitting along the Champ-de-Mars chatting with two Irish friends and one New Yorker, who came to find herself astounded that not once had we ever experienced a shooting drill throughout the school. We found it equally astounding when she admitted to us that she contextually carried a pistol when home. Our astonishment and temporary judgements, coming from our quaint hometowns in Dublin and Cork were averted when we ingested her statistic that more mass shootings than days had occurred this year alone in the States. The pride for her home country was not non-existent, however, she expressed avid gratitude to be living in France, where progressive healthcare rights such as abortion have been steadily available since 1975 and weren’t going to be threatened anytime soon.
Despite the seemingly never-ending gun tragedies, political disarray and worrying barriers to healthcare access for a bunch of drunk Gen-Zs, I’m in no way suggesting that the Irish youth boycott the J1-visa programme. I am merely raising a rather unsavoury question; are we idealising a current counter reality of the US? In recent weeks, when family or my French colleagues ask me why I’m moving to Chicago this summer, I instantly feel the need to justify my reasons to them and myself. Truthfully, I have struggled to provide such a reason except for “Well it’s just what Irish young people do”.
The case for the Irish youth to experience living in the United States perhaps remains stronger than ever today. Looking beyond the frat boat parties, one summer may or may not be enough to show us the good parts of the country that don’t manage to make it into the media. It may simply enable us to appreciate the simple blessings such as (quasi) accessible healthcare and or safety we were born within Ireland. After all, the visa programme has up to this year been halted due to Covid-19. Hence, it could be a fresh opportunity for the next generation to explore our shared heritage and understand why Irish-American relations became so amicable in the first place.
Eve Moore – Contributor