How the CFDA is Battling the “Broken and Outdated” Immigration System

We spoke with Steven Kolb about Trump's immigration policy and why the CFDA is calling for reform

Back in December, we sat down with CFDA president Steven Kolb to discuss how the Trump administration would affect the American fashion industry. Immigration in particular was a hot-button issue, Kolb told us, specifically international visas for foreign-born college students and models. And on the heels of Trump’s unsuccessful attempt at a second travel ban (his first, in January, controversially barred entry from six Muslim-majority countries for 90 days), the CFDA this week released the results of a report that measures the impact of our current immigration policy and calls for reform.

Part of a joint endeavor between the CFDA and immigration lobbying group, the report aimed to create a better understanding of how the current immigration system—one that the CFDA is calling “broken and outdated”—is slowing innovation. Two roundtable discussions among industry leaders were held, and as a followup, designers and CFDA members were given a 20-question survey. The results? Seventy percent said foreign talent is either “very important” or “absolutely essential,” and the existing immigration system is complicated and expensive. (See the full report here.)

“The immigration policy has been the same for decades,” Kolb told FU yesterday after a CFDA press conference in New York. “Fashion will continue to access it as it always has, but without commonsense reform, we risk losing our position as a fashion capital and our ability to grow the industry.”

More than 900 fashion companies are headquartered in New York. With around 180,000 employed people—that’s roughly six percent of the city’s workforce—the fashion industry generates about $10.9 billion in wages. With Trump’s tough policies in place (a wall along the southern border, beefed-up law enforcement, defunding of sanctuary cities, and a crack-down on asylum-seekers and those applying for the H-1B visa, i.e., international students), those numbers will likely decrease. 

It’s something that hits close to home, especially for CFDA chairwoman Diane von Furstenberg, who immigrated to America in the ’70s.

“I left Europe and arrived in New York with a baby in my belly and a suitcase full of little dresses made in Italy,” the Belgian-born designer said at the conference. “With these dresses I lived an American dream.” 

“Young people from all over the world come to American in search of those same opportunities,” she continued, “and young people with limitless talent and potential will continue building and innovating our industry as long as we put in place immigration politics that allow the U.S. to remain a magnet for them.” 

The report proposed several policy changes: First, to include the fields of fashion design and fashion technology within the STEM umbrella (currently only available to majors that the government deems within the categories of science, technology, engineering, and math). Secondly, to increase the number of H1-B visas offered and to create an entrepreneur visa, which would be especially helpful for budding designers fresh out of school. And lastly, to create a pathway to legalize and provide citizenship for undocumented immigrants, many of whom are seamstresses, tailors, and garment workers. 

But the complexity of the immigration system is perhaps the biggest hurdle fashion companies are grappling with. In the survey, one participant expressed concerns that “difficulties processing visas, unnecessarily long wait times for people to get visa confirmation, and unnecessary legal fees” deter from business as usual. 

“I was surprised [at] how difficult it has been for designers to apply and receive visas,” Kolb said. “It is a complex and confusing system that brands find difficult to maneuver. Our hope is that the study will influence a more accessible and more open process.” 

With the enforcement of Trump’s immigration law, the CFDA added that New York State would have to pay almost $50 billion to the federal government to support the deportation of about 600,000 undocumented New York workers. As a result, employment in New York City would decline by more than 340,000 jobs—a bigger loss than both the 2001 and 2008 recessions. 

Since its inception in 1962, the CFDA has fought for the rights of those within the fashion and garment industry. While the report is eye-opening, Trump’s immigration policy has already been felt—even here at FU’s offices. Kolb’s advice? “There seems little one can do, but reaching out to elected officials and letting them know the situation is one way to try and help.” Get to dialing.  

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