SAN JOSE — More than six months after the federal government began accepting petitions for work visas popular with Silicon Valley companies, thousands of spots remain open, a reflection of the nation's high unemployment and the political pressure to hire citizens, experts say.

As of last week, 46,700 H-1B visa applications had been submitted, thousands less than the 65,000 allocated for fiscal year 2010 and the lowest number since 2003. The cap for 20,000 additional H-1B visas reserved for foreign graduates of U.S. colleges with at least a master's degree was met, though applications are still being accepted.

Tech industry insiders say the recession is primarily responsible for the dearth of applications. "There is definitely a sense that there is a growing hostility toward some of the (visa) programs, but I don't think that is related to the downturn" in petitions, said Jenifer Verdery, Intel's director of work force policy. "You are not going to see big ramp-ups in hiring during the downturn."

But political pressure did affect hiring in other industries. The federal stimulus law includes provisions making it difficult for financial companies receiving money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, to hire H-1B workers. The requirement forced companies like Bank of America to rescind job offers to foreign professionals.

Julie Pearl, a San Francisco-based corporate immigration lawyer who works with valley companies, says her firm's caseload for visa work has been cut in half. "In the financial industry, H-1B (applications) are down almost 75 percent," she added.

Sen. Charles Grassley has criticized tech companies for not protecting jobs of U.S. citizens over those of foreigners as they lay off thousands of employees at a clip. The Iowa Republican and Sen. Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, in April reintroduced a bill that would require companies to do everything they can to hire Americans before seeking H-1B visas.

One technology corporate client of Pearl's declined to file petitions out of a sense of patriotism. "They felt, 'How do you hire a foreigner' with 12 percent unemployment in California", she said.

Samta Kapoor, who will complete her master's degree in engineering management at Duke University in December, said she and other foreign-born classmates have been told by prospective employers that they are not hiring international students this year. "There are times when we are not even looked at. They say, 'We are not hiring international students this year. It's a companywide policy. Sorry,'" she said.

Silicon Valley companies, where immigrants have played prominent roles in creating startups and new technology inventions, view the H-1B visa program as a way to grab the best talent from around the world. "For most of our clients, their mantra is: Hire the best person you can," Pearl added.

Companies can spend thousands of dollars per applicant. "It's such a hard process," Verdery of Intel said. "It's a laborious, difficult, expensive endeavor to bring someone on board."

Despite the challenges, Intel has continued about the same level of H-1B hiring as in the past, she said.

In recent years, there has been some support from both parties in Congress for more H-1B visas and green cards for foreign professionals, a major goal of tech companies that has been caught up in the highly charged debate over immigration.

During the dot-com boom a decade ago, the H-1B visa cap was 195,000 a year, a reflection of the frenzied hiring of tech workers in Silicon Valley and elsewhere around the nation. That number dropped dramatically during the recession that followed.

Les French, president of WashTech, a Seattle-based union for tech professionals, which is critical of the visa program, predicts application levels will eventually rise again. "Once the economy picks up, you'll see a pickup in the applications," he said. "I think it will be lock-step with the economy."

Others, though, say the difficulties faced by foreign-born potential workers as well as the recession will deter some overseas professionals from pursuing careers here.

"The problem is, you lose the cream-of-the-crop," said Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher on immigration and labor issues at the University of California-Berkeley. "The cream of the crop can get jobs elsewhere. Before, they had to come here."

Nonetheless, students such as Kapoor say the United States is still their first choice.

"There are a lot of things happening back home," said Kapoor, who is from Mumbai, India. "There would be no lack of opportunity for me if I went back. But I've been educated here. I want to give back to the United States."

Contact John Boudreau at 408-278-3496.