Deeply frustrating Silicon Valley's tech industry, federal officials on Monday announced that the annual cap on the number of H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers has been reached less than a week after applications for the controversial program were accepted.

Despite criticism that companies often abuse the visas by paying low wages for the temporary workers and not supporting their bids for permanent residency, officials with local corporations and industry groups contend the foreign employees are vital to maintain this country's technological edge. And although Congress has so far balked at increasing the 85,000 visas currently issued, the tech executives vowed to keep pushing lawmakers to expand the program.

"We've been advocating on this issue for over 10 years now and our executives are getting to the point where they are wondering whether there is ever going to be any action on this issue," said Emily Lam, vice president of federal issues for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. But she added, "we're still hopeful," noting that "there's going to be a huge push this summer" to increase the visas.

It took just five days for companies to file applications for the visas available for fiscal 2015, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, reflecting this nation's enormous pent-up demand for the computer engineers and other specialized employees targeted by the program.


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Just a few days ago, representatives from Yahoo, Cisco Systems, NetApp, Hewlett-Packard and other Bay Area companies met with about 65 members of Congress to discuss H-1B and related issues, Lam said. Most of the lawmakers they talked to were in the House, she said, since the Senate already has passed a bill, which besides reforming various aspects of immigration law would increase the number of visas to between 115,000 and 180,000 a year, depending on economic factors.

But immigration reform has faced a more difficult road in the Republican-controlled House and critics of the proposed H-1B expansion contend it would be detrimental to U.S.-born workers.

"It undercuts the American labor market," said Ron Hira, an associate professor and immigration expert at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, citing studies that have found many firms pay their H-1B workers extremely low pay. "It reduces wages and job opportunities for Americans. It reduces our standard of living. So it's a bad idea."

Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research for the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, agreed, and said he sees "a very, very small chance" of Congress expanding the program this year.

Complicating the issue, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, last week accused several tech companies -- including Oracle, Cisco, Facebook, Google and Intel -- of undermining those trying to pass broad immigration reform by backing "stand-alone" legislation that would only resolve their H-1B concerns.

A stand-alone bill introduced in the House last year would have boosted the H-1B cap to at least 155,000 visas. However, several local tech-industry experts said they were unaware of any current effort to sidestep immigration reform by lobbying for a separate H-1B bill. Officials with the five valley companies Durbin named didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about his accusation.

If Congress fails to address the H-1B issue this year, tech industry officials said they fear this country will face a growing and debilitating reality.

"The U.S. needs to move on to the business of fixing its highly skilled immigration system before it loses more of the top foreign professionals and job creators that help make America's fastest growing industries competitive," said a statement issued by Compete America, a coalition of tech companies that favors allowing more H-1B visas.

"It's a critical issue for the country and business," added Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman, who was among the local tech executives visiting Congress recently to talk about immigration issues. Noting that his group also supports expanding the visas, he added that talented foreign workers have become essential "for Silicon Valley and the Bay Area region to remain the center of innovation and technology."

Contact Steve Johnson at sjohnson@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews