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CFDA Challenges Costly, Complicated US Immigration System

A new report outlining the US fashion industry's key immigration concerns has called for the reform of a system that currently prohibits businesses from attracting and retaining 'essential' foreign talent.
Robert Geller, Phillip Lim, Bibhu Mohapatra, Maxwell Osborne, Waris Ahluwalia, Dao-Yi Chow and Diane von Furstenberg at the CFDA Fwd.Us press conference. | Source: Matteo Prandoni/
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — "Immigrants are American fashion," said Diane von Furstenberg on Monday morning at the CFDA Incubator space in New York's garment district to an audience that included Phillip Lim, Naeem Khan, Bibhu Mohapatra, Laura Kim, Fernando Garcia, Dao-Yi Chow, Maxwell Osborne and Waris Ahluwalia. "Just listen to the mosaic of languages you hear in showrooms," she said, before describing her own journey from Europe to the US in the 1970s. "In our fashion world, stories like that are not uncommon."

The Council of Fashion Designers of America chairwoman spoke during a press conference hosted by the CFDA with representatives of Congress and New York City Council to release the results of an immigration report conducted in partnership with FWD.Us, a four-year-old lobbying group founded in 2013 by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders to promote immigration reform.

Since President Donald Trump took office, immigration policies — specifically how stricter legislation may impact access and the ability to retain talent and affect undocumented workers — have become key concerns for the industry and country at large. "I think what we are living now is a time of incredible uncertainty," said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.Us, who explained that the US visa system has not been significantly overhauled since the 1990s. He framed the report as a way to open up a conversation about the importance immigration reform to the fashion industry.

"Like Diane, when talented immigrants come to the United States to work in fashion they bring new businesses and creative ideas that create jobs for native born Americans," said CFDA president Steven Kolb. He said the "broken and outdated immigration system" is negatively impacting the fashion industry today. "If we want to lead the world in fashion innovation, we need immigration policies that embrace talented foreigners that want to come here and build and grow."

The CFDA first embarked on the project in January, weeks before President Donald Trump signed the first highly-controversial (and legally challenged) executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. The organisation convened two industry roundtable discussions, surveyed CFDA members and interviewed designers — ultimately pooling feedback and data from about 100 professionals in the fashion industry.

"The round table informed the policy questions," said president Todd Schulte. "We heard a lot about access to talent."

If we want to lead the world in fashion innovation, we need immigration policies that embrace talented foreigners that want to come here and build and grow.

The report entitled “Designing an Immigration System that Works” revealed that for the majority of respondents, foreign talent is “very important” or “absolutely essential," specifically in hiring designers and atelier workers. In addition, 42 percent of respondents found it difficult to hire foreign workers because they are uneducated about the immigration system and 17 percent have been unable to hire the best candidate for a job because of complications with the system.

"This broken system which has been broken for so long it is now on steroids," said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. "Some are attempting to vilify an entire community or road block every attempt at immigration reform."

US Representative Carolyn B. Maloney highlighted the $900 million the fashion industry contributes to the New York City economy. “I think we should have our own fashion visa... I will work on my part in Washington," she said.

The complex system is also very expensive for fashion businesses to navigate. More than 68 percent of participants spent $5,000 to $10,000 per employee on immigration-related legal expenses, while 32 percent spent more $10,000 per employee.

“The existing immigration system makes it financially difficult to invest in younger talent, due to salary minimums that are higher than the industry’s average as well as expensive visa lawyer fees,” wrote one unidentified survey respondent. “It is easier to justify hiring a foreign worker for a more senior position.”

The CFDA report recommends fashion design and fashion technology students be allowed to apply for the student visa extension currently available only for those working in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. It also recommends an increase in the number of H-1B visas offered each year to educated foreign workers in specialty occupations. The 85,000 spots are highly coveted and reached the cap just four days after the yearly application process opened on April 3. Last year, 236,000 people applied.

In early April, the Trump Administration released new measures to the H-1B that make it tougher for companies to bring foreign entry-level computer programmers through the visa program, and raising concerns that the administration will make the program stricter for other industries in the future.

The CFDA report also recommends reforming the O-1 visa for foreigners with extraordinary ability in either the sciences, education, business, and athletics industries or the arts, film and television industries. Currently the program requires models to apply for the first category, instead of the arts-focused one. Schulte said the visa program has been "stressed and stretched for the fashion industry."

The report also calls for the formation of an entrepreneur visa and the allotment of more resources for companies navigating the immigration system.

Finally, the CFDA report addresses undocumented workers in the US, which include many seamstresses, tailors and garment workers and account for 20 percent of US clothing manufacturing labour, according to the Pew Research Center. “One designer we spoke with said that the US lags behind other countries when it comes to pattern making, and some of the best pattern makers in New York are undocumented,” read the report. "There is no way for [undocumented workers] to get right with the law," said Schulte. The CFDA calls for a pathway to legalisation or citizenship for these immigrants, but did not provide any further solutions to the nationwide problem.

On January 25, Trump signed another executive order to enforce immigration laws and accelerate deportations by hiring thousands of new border control agents. So far, Trump administration deportations are on pace with former President Barack Obama's: 17,226 people were removed from the country in February 2017, versus 17,606 people during the same period last year, according to CNN.

Schulte encouraged designers who want to protect undocumented workers on their staff to speak out publicly for reform and call members of Congress.

"Right now, nine weeks in, legislation is still being introduced," said Schulte. "Really what we want to do is take this and start to have that conversation with policy makers, both on a local and federal level about that. We see this as a start of a process."

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