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Counting the Costs of Anti-Immigration Policies on US Apparel

As Trump’s immigration policies continue to roil the nation, it is unclear where non-citizens stand in the fashion sector.

A panel at the Brooklyn Fashion + Design Accelerator (BF+DA) in Brooklyn Tuesday discussed how immigration could affect apparel manufacturing in the U.S. and what the greater community can do to help undocumented garment workers.

“This is a period of extraordinary rapid change and change is never easy,” Pratt Center for Community Development executive director and panel moderator Adam Friedman said. “Our objective is to peel away some of that confusion so we can make good judgment calls and our policy can really be grounded in facts.”

Although Trump’s recent immigration ban raises concerns, clothing companies and designers across the U.S. are faced with a hard reality about their workforces, as many apparel factories are still employing immigrants. According to 2013 reports, immigrant labor makes up approximately 64 percent of garment workers in New York City.

With limited resources, the fashion industry is left with a choice to either continue operations or comply with the law and risk profit loss. Should Trump pursue stricter immigrant legislation, the fashion industry’s current model may no longer be applicable. Apparel businesses and designers would have to fill the gaps for their current workforce, which would dynamically impact all levels of the supply chain from material sourcing to the consumer. What’s more, immigration restrictions would halt global creative talent from coming to the U.S., which could strip the fashion industry of its diversity.

To remedy the industry’s immigration dilemma, panelists called for better citizenship laws, the establishment of a common dialogue and more consumer involvement.

“In the U.S. immigration system, we don’t have a pathway for entrepreneurs to start their business,” said Deirdre Shannon, deputy national organizing director of immigration reform group FWD. “What other countries have done in response to our restrictions is to open their doors.”

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Shannon said immigrants in the U.S. don’t have a clear pathway to citizenship either. The nation’s current immigration policies make renewing visas complicated and don’t protect immigrants that fall under undocumented status. Apparel businesses and designers should speak with their local Congress representatives about implementing better citizenship laws, Shannon said. Once better citizenship laws are in place, immigrants can establish their own career paths and contribute to the U.S. economy.

“Common sense immigration reform makes it easier for the next DVF [Diane von Furstenberg] to come to this country,” Shannon said. “We are working on a piece of bi-partisan legislation called the Bridge Act.” The Bridge Act, according to Shannon, would help immigrants’ children get their footing in the U.S., but the future of the program is currently in limbo with the new Trump Administration in place.

Even though the U.S. may have differing opinions on immigration, Industrial and Technology Assistance Corporation (ITAC) executive director and panelist Kinda Younes urged fashion industry members to welcome perspectives and ignite conversation about solutions for undocumented workers.

“We have to listen to the other side and get to a dialogue where we can no longer be polarized in this country,” Younes said.

Despite the immigration turmoil, the fashion industry is not alone. The life of a garment doesn’t end at a distribution center; consumers are also at the heart of the conflict and could contribute to immigration reform as well. By collaborating with other popular brands, fashion industry members could reach out to consumers to inform them about the issues they are facing.

“We all have the power to shift this,” Forum for the Future U.S. director Sandra Seru said. “Telling consumer facing brands what to do can have an impact.”

The fashion industry and American community can propose solutions and work with other nations to preserve the country’s democratic foundations, and the success of sectors like apparel and retail.

“The role that immigration plays in establishing the U.S. is a beacon to the world,” Shannon said. “If we turn that light off and shut the door to immigration, that cost is immeasurable.”