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CFDA: Apparel Industry at Risk Under Current US Immigration System

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The U.S. immigration system isn’t making the cut for the apparel industry’s prosperity.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and FWD.us, the U.S. immigration system is negatively impacting the domestic fashion industry.

Fashion industry leaders reported difficulties with retaining foreign talent and navigating the existing immigration system. Should these problems persist, America’s designers and retailers could miss out on growth, innovation and business opportunities in upcoming years.

Limited access to foreign talent

Access and retention of top talent remains an issue under the current U.S. immigration regime.

In the survey, 70 percent of companies said foreign talent is either “very important” or “absolutely essential” to the success of their business. Fifty percent of companies surveyed also said they hire qualified immigrants to help with their design work.

The two most frequently used visas by the fashion industry include the H-1B and O-1 visas. The H-1B visa enables American companies to temporarily employ people from other nations in specialty fields for up to six years. Since the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) only issues 85,000 H-1B visas each year, employers must submit an application on behalf of their international workers. The O-1 non-immigrant visa is granted to individuals who possess “extraordinary ability” in designated fields or who have demonstrated achievement in the arts.

Due to the difficultly of securing H-1B visas, qualifying for O-1 visas and the lack of an entrepreneur visa, 64 percent of companies said they “strongly agreed” that the immigration system’s uncertainty hurt their ability to successfully recruit foreign talent. What’s more, 43 percent of companies said they haven’t been able to hire candidates because of complications with the visa system.

Navigating the current immigration system is costly

Hiring a foreign worker is extremely complex and expensive. Fifty-two percent of companies surveyed said the process of hiring foreign workers was “somewhat difficult.” Of the companies that hired foreign workers, 68 percent said they spent between $5,000 and $9,999 per employee on legal expenses related to the visa process.

Interior enforcement memos could halt work flow

In January President Trump tried to put a travel ban in place that would have restricted immigration and travel of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries. After much very public push back, the ban was revised last month to restrict travel from six nations and a judge is expected to hear the travel ban case in May.

Also in January, the White House issued an executive order which would see more than 11 million undocumented immigrants deported. Under the order, an undocumented fashion designer or factory worker with a traffic ticket would be at risk for deportation. Considering undocumented immigrants make up 20 percent of all workers in the U.S., deportation could severely impact the fashion industry’s workforce. Particularly in New York City, employment would decrease by more than 340,000 jobs, and $1.1 billion paid by undocumented workers in city and state taxes would be lost annually if the executive order took effect.

Fixing the greater immigration problem

The survey suggested three key solutions for the fashion industry’s immigration dilemma.

For one, the U.S. should consider expanding the definition of the STEM exception under OPT (Optional Practical Training) to include fashion design and fashion tech fields in order to retain foreign students.

The industry would also benefit from improved foreign talent access, and the U.S. could increase the number of H-1B visas offered on a yearly basis and reform the definition of the O-1 visa to suit those who have high achievements in the fashion industry. Additionally, creating an entrepreneur visa and providing more guidance on the immigration system would help companies have a more seamless hiring process for international candidates.

Lastly, creating a pathway for undocumented immigrants, including garment workers, to achieve citizenship, would minimize the negative business and economic effects of mass deportation.

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