How Is The Fashion Industry Addressing Immigration?

Photo: Courtesy of the CFDA.
There was no lack of feminist slogans, pussy hats, or unifying bandanas throughout Fashion Month. However, the fashion industry had yet to lay out a set of actionable steps to support the foreign-born workers who've been affected by the new administration’s proposed immigration policies, as well as those who continue to struggle with navigating the pitfalls of the existing system (which has been in place, with little reform, since 1965). A new report released by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in partnership with FWD.us, a bipartisan organization that works on economic development through immigration and criminal justice reform, represents a first step forward for designers and brands. The report outlines the glaring issues with how the current visa application process is set up, and identifies ways in which legislation could more effectively support those contributing to the industry, which is a $250 billion business in the U.S.
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Titled “Designing An American Immigration System That Works,” the report came out of two roundtable discussions held in January 2017 with designers, students, and model agents, as well as a 20-question survey completed by 60 members of the CFDA, which was meant to identify industry players’ biggest concerns about the current visa application process. Two common themes emerged: an interest in hiring and retaining top design talent, and a sense of frustration with the time and monetary investment that goes into navigating the U.S. immigration system as it’s currently set up.
“Immigration and visas have been an issue for our members for some time,” Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the CFDA, told Refinery29. The CFDA and FWD.us found that, despite the high percentage of international students graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and Parsons New School for Design in New York, many are unable to secure jobs in the U.S. long term because of how different visas are set up.
The H-1B and O-1 were identified as the most frequently-used visas in the fashion industry. The former is also known as a “high-skill visa,” as it requires an employer to sponsor the applicant and allows the worker to then stay in the U.S. for up to six years. It’s also highly competitive, as the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services can only issue 85,000 a year. (It already reached its cap for 2017, CNN reported — in four days, no less.) The O-1, meanwhile, distinguishes applicants working in STEM from those working in the arts; however, the CFDA and FWD.us note that the way these groups are broken down is outdated and can make it difficult for people to secure. As far as how the organization supports foreign-born members in immigration-related concerns, Kolb said that the CFDA “[offers] endorsement letters on their skill and work and connect them to legal resources to help them navigate the process.”
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The majority of survey respondents reported that they've employed foreign-born workers on visas (68% on an H-1B, 23% on an O-1); 64% either “agreed” or “strongly agreed,” though, that uncertainty surrounding the immigration process had hindered their ability to hire foreign talent or students, according to the report. All those polled took on the legal expenses of this whole process — anywhere from $5,000 to upwards of $10,000 per employee. This can be tough for up-and-coming labels that are still growing, Kolb explained, and are forced to choose between absorbing the cost in order to bring on what they consider the best talent or possibly stunting the company’s growth because of it.
CFDA chairwoman Diane von Furstenberg was on hand Monday to introduce the report, as well as to remind the audience of designers and editors of her own experience as a foreign-born designer working in American fashion. “In our world, stories like [mine] are not uncommon: Immigrants have been at the heart of our industry — they have built the largest fashion houses in America,” she reminded the audience. “Just listen to the mosaic of languages you hear in showrooms and backstage at fashion shows. Immigrants are American fashion.”
Another big concern highlighted by the CFDA and FWD.us is that 20% of manufacturing workers in the U.S. are undocumented. With no clear path towards citizenship, congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who has authored reports on the economic impact of the fashion industry in the past and pledged to disseminate the CFDA and FWD.us’ findings through Washington, D.C. with the hopes of reforming the system, said in a press conference that this statistic illustrates “that we need to take steps to modernize our immigration policy.” If you took these individuals out of the fashion economy in New York, city council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito posited, it “would cost [the city] and state nearly $800,000,000 in tax revenue and 340,000 jobs — and that’s more than the jobs lost in the 2001 and 2008 recessions.”
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During a press conference, Kolb noted that, “as an industry, we’re struggling to navigate uncertainty over the future of immigration policy under the new administration,” in terms of attracting foreign-born talent to come work in the U.S. “[You have] 900 different fashion companies in New York, two schools that at the center of the fashion universe in terms of bringing foreign-born students,” Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, said. “Six percent of the workforce in New York is in fashion — that’s 180,000 people…When you talk about the economic impact [of fashion], though, it’s not just about those 180,000 people; it’s about an industry that brings jobs here to the U.S.”
Now that the report is out, the CFDA and FWD.us plan to distribute it widely and get it in front of decision-makers on Capitol Hill. Allies in Washington, D.C., like Congresswoman Maloney, will advocate from the inside: “We need an Optional Practical Training (OPT) exception for fashion students to stay,” she suggested, highlighting one of the report’s three main recommendations for reform. “After reading this, I think we should have our own fashion visa — not just expand the H-1B visa and the O-1 visa. [It’s] an industry that’s growing so many jobs in our country.” The report also proposes increases the number of H-1B’s issued, as well as amending the current O-1 application to better fit the needs of fashion workers.
Its final recommendation is perhaps the most pressing recommendation, considering the policy proposals of the current administration: to forge a clear path to citizenship for the undocumented workers that actively contribute to the fashion economy in the U.S. “What we’re living in now is a time of incredible uncertainty,” Schulte said. Undocumented workers — in fashion or any other industry — he noted, don’t have basic protections under the rule of law, which can discourage them from speaking out and advocating for legal action. "This [report] is the start of a process to look at some particular things that would really impact the employment in the fashion industry and we think it’s absolutely [essential to pair that] with a pathway to citizenship that helps the undocumented. Right now, nine weeks in [to Trump's presidency], legislation is still being introduced, and there’s not a bill that specifically does this. We are concerned some of these gains can be rolled back administratively. What we want to do is take this and start to have that conversation with policy makers."
We may have to wait a while until this report actually translates into policy. However, designers and brands can still play an important role as advocates for their undocumented colleagues. As Shulte suggests, “the first thing they should do is pick up the phone and call every member of Congress and say, ‘We need to create a pathway for people to earn citizenship.’”
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