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Immigration reform critical to N.J. business landscape

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The national immigration debate is taking place in Washington, so any sense of reason or rationality is about as unlikely as Cory Booker losing in October's special Senate race.

Still, we hope that somehow, the conversation turns from illegals swarming over the borders en masse to the actual needs of business owners who have a lot of skin in the game when it comes to looking for the kind of talent for which New Jersey companies are increasingly desperate.

In the Garden State, immigration is a top-of-mind concern for the many technology and life sciences companies that are growing here, as well as anyone doing business in high-skill areas such as engineering, chemistry and math. That's because hiring executives can't find the workers they need in these fields. Some of the talent comes from all the downsizing going on in Big Pharma, but even that pool doesn't have everything these companies need. Meanwhile, technology-first universities such as Stevens and NJIT are churning out just the kinds of workers that these companies are so desperate for, but that education quickly winds up on a plane back for a home country far away, where it's of no use to New Jersey's broader economic picture.

The solution — at least, in the short term — is to expand the H-1B visa program that allows graduates of such institutions to work locally after they've completed their studies. That's exactly what the measure proposed by the Senate wants to do, though there's some uncertainty as to what the lower house will have to say about that. We hope the conversation about immigration reform turns to what's best for businesses, because otherwise, the lunatic fringe will be responsible for hijacking yet another critical debate.

Longer term, though, it's clear the United States needs to make STEM education a much greater priority, instead of just talking about doing so. At this stage of the game, any company willing but unable to hire should be cause for national disgrace. Until we solve that, H-1B reform should be considered a Band-Aid.

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