The Harmful Effects of the Visa Application Process on the Fashion Industry
We hear it all the time that "America is a melting pot." It is certainly undeniable that the cultural landscape of United States is built on the backbone of immigration (whether said immigration was intentional or forced), but an often overlooked contribution of immigration lies within industry specific commerce. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, "in 2019, there were 28.4 million foreign-born persons in the US labor force, comprising 17.4 percent of the total." This is no marginal statistic. With this in mind, we can look into the world of fashion for insight. Immigrants are not only necessary for the American economy as a whole, but they have the ability to make or break key industries such as fashion. In this article, we will explore to exactly what extent the American fashion industry relies on immigration to sustain its over 300 billion USD valuation. We will also evaluate how difficult it is for fashion houses to obtain strong foreign talent given the expensive and rigorous American visa system.
The video above highlights a panel assembled in NYC regarding the voices of immigrant creators and workers in the fashion industry. Speakers engage in necessary conversation surrounding the difficulties of working as an immigrant in the fashion industry along with topics concerning the necessity of hiring immigrants to populate the fashion industry's workforce.
For over a century, American fashion houses have created and carried on the backs of immigrants. Major household names such as Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Jason Wu, Prabal Gurung, Altuzarra, and a plethora of other immigrant designers have shaped the fashion scene as we know it today. The fashion industry is truly a global network, depending on immigrants for nearly every aspect of the garment production and sale process. From designers to seamstresses, foreign blood flows through the very veins of the fashion industry as a whole, making immigration a necessary function in order for this industry to survive. Furthermore, fashion companies create an economic multiplier effect supporting many adjuvant US industries, including, photography, graphic design, publishing, production, makeup, set design, styling, public relations, and many others. It's more than just clothes. American jobs also rely on the efforts of immigrants, and that is a point that is completely ignored in the conversation of immigration policy. If we look at it from a purely empirical viewpoint, if the fashion industry relies on the work of immigrants, and multiple other industries are boosted by the fashion industry, then it must be true that immigrants are a necessary factor in the American economy. If this is true, why do we make it so difficult for them to join our workforce? Is it purely xenophobia, or is there a mass misunderstanding in the economic nature of the fashion industry and its implications on other industries in the US?
The CFDA in conjunction with famed immigration reform organization FWD.us published an eye-opening study in 2017 showing the vast extent to which immigrants contribute and bolster the US fashion industry. This report lays out both concerns of fashion industry leaders and suggestions for how to move forward in a time where travel bans, border security and the deportation of immigrants are the topics that fuel further political divide and contention.
New York City houses the most prestigious design schools in the world: Parsons School of Design and The Fashion Institute of Technology, which both consistently rank among the top fashion schools in the world. According to the schools' published enrollment data, approximately 40% of students at Parsons are international students, and around 12% of students at FIT are international as well. With these statistics in mind, it absolutely makes sense that these students would seek to gain employment in the United States upon graduation. Those who have recently tried to obtain work permits in in the US know the trials and tribulations of working toward citizenship, but students have a special process to obtain work permits upon graduation. These students are greatly contributing to the higher education system in the US, why shouldn't they be allowed to reap the benefits of their 4 year (often longer) stimulation of the American economy?
For students looking to graduate from American universities, there are a few options to gain legal employment. Optional Practical Training, or OPT, is temporary employment that is directly related to an F-1 student’s major area of study. In the realm of fashion, fashion students qualify for this type of visa given that they can prove that their work is relevant to their area of study. These students can apply to receive up to 12 months of OPT employment authorization before completing their academic studies and/or after completing their academic studies. Easy enough, right? Wrong. While this is certainly a wonderful avenue for students, problems arise when it comes to long term retention. The truth of the matter is that 12 months is simply not enough time to garner enough trust between both the employee and company to warrant the initiation of work sponsorship. To transition from OPT employment to something more permanent requires a serious investment on both employer and employee. This is a major deterrent for many, as the process is both expensive and lacks a strong guarantee for acceptance. While many major fashion houses have the money and legal team to facilitate such measures for foreign talent, budding brands get the short end of the stick when it comes to their prospective talent pools. This hinders the emergence of new brands that add flavor and excitement to the existing fashion industry. How can we evolve if we have the same people cycling through the work place?
For highly-skilled prospective workers, or people with technical fashion degrees in this specific case, the H1-B visa is a wonderful option that allows immigrants the opportunity to work in the United States for a specific company for a maximum 6 year period. The process requires company sponsorship and hefty fees, but for the right employee, the opportunity cost is well worth it. This is all fine and dandy, but with a cap of 85,000 visa acceptances, over 66% of applications will ultimately be denied, meaning that even initiating a visa application is a major risk. It is worth noting that STEM fields generally take priority over those in creative fields. The US also currently does not provide a visa for entrepreneurs, making it nearly impossible for a foreign designer to create a new company unless he or she is a legal permanent resident or naturalized citizen, a process that takes years and is incredibly expensive. This process clearly prevents innovation and creativity in the fashion marketplace. Rather than rejecting visa applications for hardworking immigrants, we should be encouraging them to come and boost the American economy.
On top of immigrant talent coming in from design schools, immigrants are necessary to the clothing manufacturing process in the United States. One designer interviewed in CFDA's survey 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." Undocumented immigrants constitute nearly 20% of all workers in US clothing and manufacturing, and 4.2% of all employees working in the wholesale market. Considering that *nearly* everyone in the United States actively consumes within the fashion industry, it's fair to say that regardless of our opinions on immigration, we all benefit from the creative contributions of both legal and illegal immigrants. There is a beautiful blend of exotic languages converging behind the scenes of showrooms and backstage at fashion shows. The vibrant and unique nature of clothes we wear are equally exuberant and exciting as the blend of the nationalities behind their conception. The diversity of trends and style seen on the streets of this melting pot of a country is 100% due to the heritage and stories woven into the very fabric of each garment.
After four years of the Trump Administration and its harsh conservative immigration policies, it is time for true immigration reform. Everything that makes the fashion industry what it is today relies on the innovation of immigrants. The vibrancy of this industry as a whole is at serious risk, especially when we factor in extreme measures such as country specific travel bans and mass deportations. Providing legal avenues for foreign nationals to contribute to the American workforce is a process that benefits multiple areas of the American economy. Let's hope that the most current political changes in the US will foster an environment that sustains the creative process in the fashion industry.
For further reading and information, check out the resources below to learn more about the immigration process and its connection to fashion: