Conservatives Help Immigrants Change New Jersey Law

by Matt Katz

Immigrants from West Africa are operating New Jersey businesses in a trade they learned from their mothers and aunts: Hair braiding. But often, because of state regulations that effectively mandate that they attend costly cosmetology schools, they’re doing it illegally, without a license.

So over the last two years, these African women — some new Americans, some undocumented — lobbied legislators in Trenton. They’re now on the verge of watching the legislature change the law to exempt them from the cosmetology requirement.

Most surprisingly, they were guided in this endeavor by the state chapter of Americans For Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group backed by the Koch brothers.

“Those guys came and said, ‘We are going to work you through this,’” said Anita Yeboah, a braider originally from Ghana who works at J&C African Braids in Trenton. “All we can say to them is, God bless them for their time, for all they are doing.”

Erica Jedynak, the state director for Americans For Prosperity, said the plight of these women ts in with the group’s efforts to cut government intrusion into business. Jedynak also noted the importance of aiding women, particularly immigrant women who are often single mothers and the breadwinners for their families.

Hair braiders complained to Jedynak about customers walking out on their bills and then threatening to turn them in for lacking a license if the hair braiders called the cops.

When Yeboah moved to the U.S. two decades ago she opened an African deli in Trenton. But her first child was born with disabilities, and she needed a job that would allow some exibility, so she could go to therapy and doctor appointments. That’s when she decided to fall back on a skill she learned watching her mother and “aunties” braid hair on the front stoops of their homes back in the old country.

“I grew up with it,” she said. “We would sit down there, passing them the comb.”

African-style hair braiding often involves weaving in extensions made of synthetic or human hair. The process can take many hours.

The skill provided Yeboah the income she needed to raise four children, two of whom have disabilities, and save enough money to start a nonprofit organization in Ghana helping disabled kids.

Plus, she evidently loves the work. “We do miracles with hair…with our own hands, comb, no chemicals — make them feel so happy and proud,” she said.

That lack of chemicals is at the heart of why African hair braiders don’t think they should have to spend close to $20,000 on cosmetology degrees. Those classes cover shaving and hair dying — and not their style of hair braiding. So Yeboah works in a legal gray area, under the license of her shop’s manager.

“We respect the law in America, we know the law makes this country so beautiful, we love America so much,” she said. “But this is something that we are born with, so I think there’s no need for us to go to school.”

Still, she constantly worries about being fined thousands of dollars, as others have.

The bill she lobbyed for will create a new Hair Braiding Establishment Advisory Committee to register and inspect hair braiding shops under new standards. It passed the senate unanimously in a marathon session Sunday and awaits the governor’s signature.

The New Jersey State Board of Cosmetology and Hairstyling wouldn’t comment. Opponents of the bill say that because these women work with hair and scalps, they should be regulated just as any hairdresser. Yet the bill unanimously passed the state Assembly, where it was sponsored by Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, who’s African American.

“You are braiding hair to put your children through school, through college, through medical issues. It’s amazing,” McKnight said at a recent committee hearing. “And you are a registered business. So you are paying taxes. So you are helping the economy.”

Jedynak agrees. She sees something bipartisan about the support the hair braiders are getting in Trenton. “In a context of just New Jersey bickering, and even some of the national discourse that is unfortunate, you have both sides coming together,” she said.


Posted by on Jul 14 2018. Filed under Community News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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