updated 6/2/2006 12:42:36 PM ET 2006-06-02T16:42:36

The government has already reached the limit on high-tech worker visas for 2007 even though the fiscal year does not start until Oct. 1, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said Thursday.

High-tech companies said that underscores the need to increase the 65,000 annual cap on the popular H-1B visas used to bring in engineers, computer programmers and others.

Immigration legislation passed by the Senate would increase the number to 115,000, but a version of the bill in the House of Representatives does not address the issue, and it is unclear whether lawmakers will be able to produce a compromise.

"Our message is whether it's comprehensive immigration reform or some other way, we really need relief this year," said Sandy Boyd, a vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers. "There's much more demand for highly educated folks in specialty occupations, and we hurt our competitiveness when we don't allow American companies access to the talent they need."

2007 is the fourth year in a row for which the cap has been met before the start of the budget year. This year was the earliest it has happened, tech companies said.

The Citizen and Immigration Services began accepting H-1B petitions on April 1 and exceeded the cap on May 26, the agency said in a press release. Petitions subject to the 2007 cap that USCIS has received since May 26 will be rejected, the release said.

High-tech firms will not have another opportunity to apply until April 1, 2007, when petitioning will start for the 2008 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, 2007.

The visas are widely used in Silicon Valley, the California center of the high-tech industry, and elsewhere. Companies pay a $3,185 fee to bring workers in under the six-year visas.

Besides raising the cap, the Senate bill would allow it to increase as much as 20 percent more each year, depending on demand. Immigrants with certain advanced degrees would not be subject to the cap. Exemptions already exist for some immigrants who have received higher-education degrees in the United States or are going to work at universities or nonprofit organizations.

U.S. technology workers and other opponents contend the expansion is unnecessary and will serve to force down wages and discourage American youngsters from pursuing technical careers.

Congress last raised the cap in 2000, to 195,000 per year, when the country was enjoying a technology-propelled boom. The limit was brought back down to 65,000 in time for the 2004 fiscal year.

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