updated 10/4/2004 6:09:40 PM ET 2004-10-04T22:09:40

Immigration officials have a message for employers hoping to hire foreign workers through the H1-B visa program for the fiscal year that began Friday: It's too late.

The popular visas are granted to foreigners in specialty professions such as architecture, engineering, medicine and computer programming. H1-B visas are good for up to six years.

Congress set a cap of 65,000 such visas per fiscal year. By the end the work day Friday, Citizenship and Immigration Services already had received enough applications to meet the limit.

Agency spokesman William Strassberger said applications filed by Friday will be considered. For any after that, "It's too late," he said.

Under the H-1B program, U.S. employers must pay foreign workers the prevailing wage for their job fields and show that qualified U.S. workers are not being passed over. The foreign worker must have at least a bachelor's degree or the equivalent.

Unions and other critics say the program allows businesses to fill jobs with cheaper foreign labor, but those that use the program say they can't find enough Americans with the necessary math, science and engineering skills.

Sensitivity about exporting American jobs overseas has made Congress reluctant to raise the cap.

Congress last raised the cap in 2000, when the country was enjoying a technology-propelled boom. The H1-B worker limit rose to 195,000, but it fell back to 65,000 last year.

Of the 65,000 visas available, 6,800 are set aside for workers from Chile and Singapore under terms of free trade agreements with those countries.

"A cap never has been set that reflects anything in our economy. It's always been a political number," said Theresa Brown, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Companies have hit the cap several times over the years, she said.

"We've got to have a better system than that," Brown said.

Employers hope to get relief from a proposal being pushed by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. They are proposing that foreign students graduating from master's or doctoral programs at U.S. universities not be counted against the H1-B limit. Such students often are recruited by U.S. businesses and could end up working for global competitors when H1-B visas are unavailable.

It is unclear whether Congress will consider the proposal before adjourning.

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