MADISON - A Washington lobbyist, as well as several union chiefs and business leaders, Thursday said an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws will help boost the nation's economy, keeping needed science and low-skilled workers in states such as New Jersey legally.
"If you're really serious about leading and influencing and innovating, we need to open our doors to attract talent so we can create newer products, so we can innovate, so we can expand," said Samia Bahsoun, chief executive officer of S2 Associates International, a telecom company in Spring Lake. "And those people that are going to come in, they're also going to open your markets."
Bahsoun was a panelist at the New Jersey Immigration Economics Forum held by the AJC New Jersey, a global Jewish advocacy group, at Fairleigh Dickinson University. The updating of immigration laws, and its potential impact on businesses, was the topic, one especially relevant to New Jersey.
The state ranks third in the nation in terms of its percentage of small business owners who are immigrants, according to the Immigration Policy Center. In New Jersey, 28 percent of small businesses are owned by immigrants, behind California (33 percent) and New York (29 percent).
The takeaway from the forum was that immigrants can bolster the American labor force by supplying so-called skilled STEM - or science-technology-engineering-mathematics - employees, as well as low-skilled workers. Howver, it's not easy for these immigrants to legally get work and stay in America, according to Thursday's speakers.
As it stands now, the highly skilled workers can often only get short-term visas to stay in the States, and less-skilled immigrants who want to work year-round and not just seasonally, have no visa program, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of small business owners.
Jacoby, a lobbyist working with lawmakers on immigration law changes, started the forum by outlining the major immigration-policy issues. One is what should be done with the 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S., and whether they should be given legal status or a direct route to become U.S. citizens. The other issue is how the visa system should be revised.
"The system for highly skilled immigrants is clearly broken," Jacoby told the 60 business people at the event.
"Like every country in the world, we desperately need scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs to keep our businesses innovating and to keep the economy competitive," she said. "But many times immigrants who want to come to the U.S. can't get visas, or the visas they get are short-term. We force them to leave after they have already gone to school here and have started to make their way."
Panelist Katherine Kish, executive director of Einstein's Alley, a Plainsboro-based economic development group, and Priti Padma-Patel, vice president of the New Jersey Asian Indian Chamber of Commerce, voiced the same concerns as Jacoby.
Padma-Patel told the group that the current immigration situation posed challenges for her members, which include many information technology companies that look to hire highly skilled immigrant workers.
"I don't think we want a limit on the talent that we can bring into the United States," Kish said. "When you think about the STEM people ... they're really drivers of productivity. There are statistics that say that those folks add 10 to 20 percent to our GNP productivity statistics in any given year."
Kish said her group supports the "Startup Act," a Senate bill that proposes that 75,000 new entrepreneurial visas be issued to immigrant company founders who raise at least $100,000 and hire at least five employees within three years.
Einstein's Alley also was heartened last week, she said, about news that Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg and several other Silicon Valley CEOs were interested in raising $50 million to advocate for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
A trio on the panel echoed Jacoby's comments on the difficulties less-skilled immigrant workers have getting jobs in the U.S. They were Dominick Mondi, executive director of the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association; Michael Carroll, executive vice president of Allan Industries, a janitorial service; and Kevin Brown, New Jersey director of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.
"Immigration reform is important because no human being is illegal and everyone deserves a chance at the American Dream," Brown said.
Mondi and Jacoby denied that immigrants were displacing homegrown labor when it comes to low-skilled jobs, since there are fewer Americans willing to so such work. In 1960, half of the men in the American labor force were high school dropouts, she said, while today less than 10 percent are.
The forum's sponsors also included the Hispanic Chamber Of Commerce of New Jersey, the New Jersey Main Street Alliance and FDU's Rothman Institute of Entrepreneurship.