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On Valentine’s Day, the WhiteBox art gallery in New York City hosted a runway show with a political twist. The diverse group of models featured in “Illegal Fashion” wore dresses made of canvas, linen, burlap, and recycled paper. Painted with splotches of bold colors, the garments bore provocative phrases like “I am illegal,” “deport me,” and “ICE me.”
Artist Maria de Los Angeles curated the show with WhiteBox founder Juan Puntes. de Los Angeles also designed the dresses modeled. The 29-year-old has a personal connection to the garments, as well as to the messages painted on them.
“I’m undocumented,” she says. “So a lot of the show was about my identity. There is a large range of immigrant experiences. There are a lot of stereotypes, both negative and positive.”
“Illegal Fashion” not only aimed to shine a spotlight on the immigrant experience, but also to draw attention to the fact that the work of immigrants drives the fashion business. The Pew Research Center has found that the textile, apparel, and leather manufacturing industry is second only to private households in employing the greatest share of immigrants, with a 22 percent share of authorized and a 14 percent share of unauthorized immigrants. Accordingly, the nation’s immigration policies directly affect the apparel industry.
The Trump administration announced on September 5th that it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The federal government implemented DACA in 2012 to give some undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children work authorization and a temporary deportation reprieve. Critics of a DACA repeal point to findings that ending the program could cost the nation $340 billion.
Congress members on both sides of the political aisle are trying to reach an agreement about the DREAM Act with President Trump. That legislation would allow DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants to stay in the US. If the DREAM Act doesn’t pass and deportations of all undocumented people rise, apparel industry experts say the sector could be particularly hard-hit. In fact, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) argued well before the DACA announcement that the country’s convoluted immigration system is bad for business.
“Anyone who has ever set foot in New York or Los Angeles’ garment district knows that immigrants are the backbone of the fashion industry,” says Steven Kolb, CFDA’s president and CEO. “From seamstresses and photographers to pattern makers and tailors, we owe much of our success to the tireless work of those who came from other countries and brought with them creative ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit.”
In April, the CFDA and FWD.us, an immigrant advocacy group founded by tech innovators like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, released a report called “Designing an Immigration System that Works.” The report features feedback from more than 100 fashion industry professionals about how US immigration policy has affected the apparel sector. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that the instability of the immigration system has hurt their efforts to recruit foreign talent. The report concluded that an increase in deportations would serve to thin the fashion industry’s workforce.
“A lot of the designers come from different parts of the word,” says Leezia Dhalla, a FWD.us spokeswoman. “Diane von Furstenberg and Oscar de la Renta were not born in America, but they came and contributed. Our fashion industry thrives on immigration, on the talents of individuals from all over the world. It includes designers, stylists, tailors, and garment workers.”
Nejvi Bejko, 27, is a case in point. She works in Washington, DC, as a showroom stylist for MM.LaFleur, which sells women’s business attire. She has previously worked for watchmaker Shinola. But her career experiences would not be possible without DACA. At age 9, Bejko and her family left war-torn Albania and settled in Michigan without permission from the US government. She doesn’t remember much about her life in Albania, but she took an early interest in fashion.
“Fashion is the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I was young — from sketching outfits to being interested in putting clothes together,” she says.
When Bejko graduated from high school at 18, her options for school and work were limited. She managed to pay for classes at a community college, where she earned an associate’s degree, but could not put her knowledge to use because she didn’t have authorization to work in the United States. After the Obama administration introduced DACA, Bejko attended Michigan State University, where she studied apparel and textile design. She quickly discovered that she was not the only undocumented student in her program.
“I had a very good friend from Guatemala whose mom brought him over when he was a child,” Bejko says. “There were a lot of similarities.” Both she and her classmate, for example, could not receive financial aid and paid for their schooling on their own.
Bejko says her program also included international students from countries like China and Japan, forced to leave after graduation because they were in the country on student visas and could not get work authorization. International students in the US qualify for Optional Practical Training (OPT), which allows them to work for up to a year in industries connected to their fields of study. Students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields qualify for an OPT extension of up to two years, but fashion design and fashion tech majors aren’t eligible. The “Designing an Immigration System that Works” report recommends that this change, as it argues that fashion designers are innovators, too. The report also suggests that the federal government increase the number of H-1B visas it offers, expand the definition of the O-1 visa, and provide visas for entrepreneurs.
The H-1B visa lets businesses employ workers in specialized fields for up to six years, but most companies that apply for these visas don’t receive them because just a select number are offered annually. To recruit foreign talent, the fashion industry also relies heavily on the O-1 visa, for individuals who excel in the sciences, arts, education, business, and sports. But FWD.us and the CFDA recommend that the government update the guidelines for this visa because the exhaustive paperwork required creates obstacles for applicants.
Retail analyst Robert Greenspan of Greenspan Consult Inc. in Los Angeles has observed the fallout from these policies.
“There used to be lots of international students going to design colleges and then hopefully getting a job here, but their numbers in fashion schools have dropped considerably from lack of jobs,” he says.
He adds that some of the apparel industry jobs largely performed by immigrants, like garment work, aren’t easy to fill.
“Those jobs aren’t easily replaced. Nobody wants to do that job. It’s not glamorous. It’s hard work,” he says. “How does it affect business if the people doing those jobs leave? I think that’s a problem. I don’t think there’s trained people to replace them.”
Forty-three percent of the fashion industry professionals surveyed for “Designing an Immigration System that Works” said that they could not hire the best job candidate because of problems with the visa system. Thirty-one percent said that the inability to hire a foreign worker actually hurt their business financially. Bejko says that she knows from personal experience how challenging it can be to retain quality employees.
“Even here at the showroom, it’s difficult to find people who are hardworking,” she says. “Our [immigration policies] are very detrimental to the the fashion industry.” She questions how the industry would sustain itself without the immigrants who make the products, sell the products, and pay billions of dollars in taxes annually.
de Los Angeles, a DACA recipient who settled in California from Mexico at age 11, agrees that eliminating the program is not in the best interest of the United States.
“It’s very unhelpful to the economy, which is what people don’t realize,” she says. Immigrants “are an economic force in different industries. The country is going to be losing out on people who have been well-educated and who are at a prime age for producing. I think it’s not a smart choice.”
As a child, de Los Angeles toiled on the California farmland with her family. But art always fascinated her. She pursued the subject at Santa Rosa Junior College, then the Pratt Institute in New York City and, from there, Yale University. She now teaches at Pratt and plans to continue using fashion in her artwork, a point of interest that has led her to team up with couture dressmakers and tailors. She has also consistently used her “wearable art,” as she calls her garments, to protest. Last October, she and 25 models marched to Trump Tower, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and down Fifth Avenue in dresses covered with political statements about the US immigration system.
“I really like my work to change depending on what context it’s exhibited in,” she says. “I like the relationship between sculpture, performance art, and fashion, and the many people who work in fashion. I don’t think the lives of the people in these industries crosses the minds of people who wear the clothing. It’s something to think about, to talk about labor but also in a fashion context.”
The union United Here represents workers in the textile, manufacturing, and distribution industry. According to Rachel Gumpert, the union’s national press secretary, many such workers are DACA recipients.
“There are still textile workers who actually make clothes in America,” Gumpert says. “They are being paid union wages and have a lot of say in their jobs. There are DACA recipients working full time, making a huge contribution to the economy, to the textile and garment-making industries. If they’re going to be leaving or basically criminalized overnight, they’re going to lose good union jobs with benefits.”
Because many DACA recipients also have parents who are undocumented but lack authorization to work in the US, ending the program may cause a ripple effect throughout immigrant communities, Gumpert says. Such parents rely on their children to earn a fair wage or provide health insurance for family members, she says.
Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute’s US Immigration Policy Program, says reversing DACA could force these young undocumented immigrants back into industries like food service, maintenance, or construction, where it’s easy to pay people under the table. Before DACA’s implementation, Bejko worked in restaurants, receiving cash wages. Gelatt says employers will suffer financially if they have to lay off their DACA workers and use their resources to find and train replacements for them.
“I think it’s kind of a loss for the employers, for the industry, and for the country,” Gelatt says. “That’s kind of a loss for us all.”
Gelatt points out that repealing DACA may also cause a brain drain of sorts since the program required a high school diploma (or equivalent), one to be currently enrolled in school, or honorably discharged from the military. DACA made college education possible for many unauthorized immigrants as well.
“It’s much less clear [with a DACA repeal] if young undocumented people are going to attend college at the same rate,” Gelatt says.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that 20 percent of the DACA-eligible population is enrolled in college, the same percentage as the US population generally. It has also found that sales and related occupations (which includes retail) and production occupations (including dressmakers and textile and leather workers) are among the most common fields for both DACA-eligible and ineligible unauthorized immigrants.
“It’s very much different than what people think it is,” Bejko says of her work experiences as a DACA recipient. “There are plenty of people like me who have retail and management jobs.”
Not only do immigrants have a wide range of jobs in the fashion industry, they also create jobs for US citizens, Kolb says. Thanks to entrepreneurial immigrants, many Americans in the apparel industry have landed jobs in sales, marketing, photography, graphic design, production, and cosmetics, he says.
In Los Angeles, which has the largest garment district in the country, advocates for garment workers fear that rescinding DACA may worsen the problems of the fast-fashion industry. Over the past decade, garment workers in California have filed more than 300 claims for backpay for making Forever 21 clothing, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation. The Times also cited a 2016 US Department of Labor investigation of 77 LA garment factories. It found that workers received an average of $7 an hour for sewing clothes for Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less, and T.J. Maxx; the city’s minimum wage is $12.
With this in mind, Garment Worker Center director Marissa Nuncio calls the DACA repeal an attack on the immigrant community.
“It makes people more vulnerable,” she says. “People with undocumented status who work in the sweatshop industry face an increased amount of retaliation, wage theft, and poor working conditions. If folks are losing their eligibility to work, we know from experience they are more likely to be absorbed by workplaces that are less protective of their rights.”
Most of the workers the Garment Worker Center serves are over age 35 and therefore do not qualify for DACA, but Nuncio says that during the summer months she sees an increased number of teens performing garment work. “They’re usually recently arrived and sometimes have multiple family members in the factories.”
Attorney Jessie Kornberg, president and CEO of the Los Angeles-based Bet Tzedek Legal Services, describes sweatshop labor as “difficult” and “dangerous.” Her firm has represented exploited garment workers.
“Some can’t work fast enough to make $3 an hour and get desperate enough to file a wage claim, knowing their employer will almost certainly report them to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” she says. “This is what the DACA rescindment means: putting another 800,000 workers in a situation that our garment workers already find themselves in — abusive, exploitive, [depriving] them of their basic rights.”