Dressing for a Revolution: How the Fashion Industry Can Lead the Fight for Immigration Reform

“Fashion is part of the daily air, and it changes all the time, with all the events. You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.” – Diana Vreeland

One of my favorite things about fashion is how complex a single garment can be. Take the T-shirt, that staple of the all-American wardrobe. The material? Cotton, grown in the U.S., India or Uzbekistan. The color? From a mill in Mexico or Pakistan. The assembly? A factory in China or El Salvador. Then, of course, there’s the thread, the labels and the labor involved in the design, packaging, shipment, and ultimately the sale — dozens of disparate elements and ideas brought together to create something seemingly simple but fundamentally multifaceted. It’s this truly international scope of every aspect of the industry that places America’s fashion community at the forefront of the immigration debate.

One question that comes up repeatedly from my clients in the fashion sector is, “How do we find and retain talent?” For a variety of reasons, limiting the job search to Americans isn’t practical, as it ignores an enormous global talent pool that brings with it the varied experiences and perspectives that reflect the international dynamic of the industry. At the same time, the barriers to immigration are enormous; the majority of the employment-based visas are notoriously difficult to obtain, especially for designers and models just entering the field. The H1B visa is infamously competitive — so much so that the annual quota is filled in a matter of days, resulting in a lottery for even the most qualified applicants. Labor certification, inter- company transfer and investment visas are equally onerous, often involving multiple steps that can take months, if not years, to complete. Success with an O “extraordinary ability” visa is so difficult to predict that it might as well be filed via crystal ball. There’s no question that our immigration system is a frustrating patchwork, but this frustration is precisely what is needed to spur reform, and the fashion industry is uniquely equipped to lead the fight.

The fashion industry is an excellent example of what a truly global economic engine looks like and what is required to make it run. The T-shirt mentioned above proves that — it’s a powerful example of the realities of international trade. Anyone involved in fabrication knows that an ability to work across borders to create a product that enters the global stream of commerce is essential. A robust immigration system that supports trade by encouraging the movement of people and ideas across borders not only permits talent to enter the U.S., but the products that result from the contributions of immigrant workers can reach receptive populations around the world. Furthermore, building bonds between communities abroad and the U.S. due to the presence of friends a family who have been allowed to make lives here, either temporarily or as new citizens, is essential to developing international partnerships which, in time, can form the basis for treaties. Trade agreements work. As we’ve seen in recent months, trade wars do not.

But to build those bridges, employers need more options for bringing in talent. An expansion of the H1B and H2B is a start, as is a more generous application of the “extraordinary” and “exceptional ability” visas. We also need more transparency at our consulates abroad to avoid capricious, politically motivated visa denials. For real change to occur — the kind of change that sparks paradigm shifts — a sophisticated, industry-specific approach that allows employers to bring in workers on short notice is required. Visa options that reflect the spontaneity of the creative professions need to be put into place, with emphasis placed on short-term positions that can be filled in days or weeks rather than months or years and reflect industry standards in terms of contracts and itineraries.

Since the inception of the Republic, fashion has dictated what our leaders wear and how they present ideas. It has provided the means of simple but effective communication with something as simple as the color of a tie or pin placement. Now more than ever, the industry is poised to do the unthinkable: make immigration policy fashionable.

Michael Wildes, Esq.

Wildes & Weinberg, P.C.

515 Madison Avenue, 6th Floor

New York, NY 10022


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