The U.S. fashion industry is big business — and one that is dependent upon skilled workers from abroad.
But immigration policies are hampering the success of the industry, while policies from the current administration are having a drastic impact, according to the latest research from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the FWD.us, which is a bipartisan organization that aims to promote U.S. policies that support businesses.
The 88-page report, “Alterations for an Outdated Immigration System,” is a follow-up report to last year’s “Designing an Immigration System That Works.” This year’s update included regional data and insights, and was done with support from the Nashville Fashion Alliance and the Saint Louis Fashion Fund.
The report, which can be found here, revealed how immigration policies are impacting the industry, while executives with the CFDA and FWD.us shared perspectives with WWD on why this is a critical issue occurring as the demand for “Made in America” products increases.
The report showed that the wages and tax revenue generated by the New York fashion industry alone total $12.9 billion, while revenue generated by Los Angeles-area textile and apparel import companies is more than $17.8 billion. Regarding recent immigration policy implementation, 37 percent of survey respondents said they’ve been directly impacted by the changes and that it has “made it more difficult for immigrants to come to or remain in the U.S.” authors of the report said, adding that this included the rescission of DACA and “the temporary suspension of premium processing for H-1B visas; and the ‘travel ban.’”
“The U.S. fashion industry thrives on talented individuals from around the world,” researchers said in the report. “Of the companies we surveyed, 85 percent indicated that foreign talent is important to the growth and success of their businesses, with 55 percent remarking that it was either ‘very important’ or ‘absolutely essential.’”
And almost half of the respondents said “passing the Dream Act was one of the top two reforms they would most like to see,” while 33 percent noted that “expanding H-1Bs [visas] was one of the top two reforms they would most like to see.”
Digging deeper into the survey showed that there were two emerging themes framing this issue. The first is recruitment and retention — especially of “top talent.” About 56 percent of study participants “indicated that recruitment and retention of talent was their top concern, and 33 percent of respondents said they will have to let go of an employee because of current immigration policies.”
The other key theme is centered on processes. Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed said “more resources are needed to help employers and graduating students navigate the immigration system, and a majority cited prohibitive legal costs of $5,000 to $10,000 or more per foreign employee.”
“America’s legacy as a magnet for the best and brightest in global talent has allowed the fashion industry to sustain and expand its economic growth,” authors of the report said. “The industry is thus directly impacted by restrictionist immigration policies advanced by this administration. Ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an increasingly burdensome, unwieldy, and unpredictable visa application process, and declines in foreign-born visitors and students have all caused deep concern among designers, labels and schools, which do not wish to turn away qualified young people.”
During the meeting with WWD, Naeem Khan, the noted Indian-American fashion designer based in New York; Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, and Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, expressed concerns about the key findings of the report and how it is affecting skilled labor in the industry.
“I truly believe in this country,” Khan said. “I believe that this country gave me a life and protected my craft and made me build it. [And in] order to build [immigrants] up, we need to create situations so that they can be part of our labor forces, rather than hiding.”
The timing of the policy changes comes as the fashion industry is experiencing growth of U.S.-based manufacturing and the “Made in the USA” movement, which requires skilled textile and garment workers. And in reference to skilled labor jobs, Khan said there are a “lot of indirect American jobs that have been created. These jobs are not going to be taken by Americans, but they create [more] jobs for America.”
Schulte noted that immigrants and immigration “have historically really been the great competitive advantage of the United States. This is really what has set us apart, and this has been true for most of our history.” Schulte also said fashion is unique in how it runs as an industry and its economic impact.
Todd Schulte and Naeem Khan
“It’s this incredible economic multiplier effect, that if you can pull people together in one place, and a small number of people in one place, there’s this huge ripple effect for the economy,” Schulte explained. “You don’t have that in every industry to the same degree, but I think in the fashion industry it’s an incredibly powerful testament.”
In regard to recent immigration policies, Schulte described it as “policies designed to make life so difficult for people here today — so they choose to leave.” Schulte stressed that the industry functions in a global economy, “and to think that somehow we can put a fence up and keep jobs in is totally false.” Reform is essential, he noted.
“We have a five-decade-old immigration system that was basically designed to solve the immigration issues of the 1940s,” Schulte said. “We should have a modern, 21st-century immigration system that fits the needs of a global economy.”
The CFDA’s Kolb said the labor force, “at the production level, is aging. And so young people in this country are not going into those kinds of jobs, and for us to really support ‘Made in America’ we need [immigrant-supported] jobs. And a lot of those jobs are really filled by talented, creative immigrant [employment].”
“But there are other dimensions to encouraging immigrant labor in the industry,” Kolb said. “The more we are different and we are grouped together, the more interesting the product or the ideas are.”
“You want different perspectives, you want different cultural references, and that’s what’s so important about this,” Kolb added. “It’s making sure that as an industry, fashion is just as creatively relevant as Paris, London or Milan, or the emerging markets in China or Shanghai. It’s letting people into our industry that are going to contribute something different from what we know or what we think.”
The report offered several recommendations include creating a “pathway for dreamers” and improving access to foreign talent as well as expanding education and resources.