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If you were to gauge the vitality of the local high-tech industry by the number of high-skilled foreign workers in Sonoma County, it would barely have a pulse.

Unlike Silicon Valley, Sonoma County tech companies rarely hire workers using H-1B visas, a special program that allows U.S. companies to obtain temporary work permits for foreign workers.

They fill nearly all of their openings with American-born workers or applicants who have immigrated to the United States, according to a Press Democrat analysis of visa applications by Bay Area employers.

But local tech companies and business leaders are excited over the possibility of attracting more foreign employees — a prospect that is a key part of the legislative effort in Washington, D.C., to overhaul U.S. immigration laws.

If enacted in its present form, the bill would dramatically raise the cap on H-1B visas. Opponents warn it could have adverse effects on American tech workers, but proponents say it will help local industries that depend on STEM workers — short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

"I think if there were more visas available, there would be more companies trying to take advantage of them," said Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council.

"It would certainly be helpful for us," she said. "We are trying to grow some of the targeted industries, like biotech."

At Cyan, a Petaluma-based networking equipment maker, foreign tech workers with H-1B visas comprise about 8.5 percent of the company's workforce in Petaluma — or 14 of its 165 local employees.

This year, the company filed 15 H-1B petitions for the 2013-2014 fiscal year. Of these, four petitions were approved by federal officials under a lottery system that is triggered when the annual national cap of 65,000 H-1Bs is reached.

Another seven petitions were approved for employees who already had already obtained H-1B visas. These petitions, which are not subject to the nation's annual cap, could be H-1B extensions for existing employees or new workers who transferred from other companies. Four petitions that did not make the lottery cut were returned to Cyan.

"I'm trying to fill more than 20 positions over the next few months — that's local and that's just my department in engineering. That's where most of the H-1B recruitment happens," said Scott Pradels, Cyan's vice president of engineering.

Pradels said the majority of Cyan's jobs are filled by U.S. citizens, but sometimes there are not enough skilled domestic workers to meet the company's needs. The skills the company is looking for, he said, are a highly specialized blend of computer science and networking.

Arun Patange, a native of Bangalore, India, fit that bill.

Patange, who received his master's degree in computer science from Syracuse University in New York, found out about the Cyan job opening through stackoverflow.com, a website where professional programmers and enthusiasts post questions and answers to computer science problems.

Patange, who has been working at Cyan since 2011, said he has a strong background in computer networks and hardware. His main focus is gaining experience and honing his skills.

"Once I gain some experience, I might think of going back (to India) or stay a little longer," he said.

In Sonoma County, during the 18 months from Oct 1, 2011 to March 2013, federal immigration officials approved only 99 petitions for H-1B visas.

Of course, that pales in comparison to Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, which saw 27,312 H-1B visa applications approved by immigration officials during that same period. In San Francisco, 5,812 H-1B visas were approved by immigration officials.

Nationwide, the government allows U.S. employers to bring in a maximum of 65,000 workers annually on H-1B visas. An additional 20,000 visas are available to foreign students who have earned advanced degrees at U.S. universities.

The caps are aimed at protecting American workers, but critics say the system is abused by some companies. Also, universities and nonprofit research organizations are not subject to the cap, which brings the total number of H-1Bs significantly higher than the annual limits.

Each spring, employers across the country submit H-1B petitions on behalf of foreign workers they wish to hire. This year, the cap was reached within three days of the April 1 opening date.

When that happens, the H-1B process goes into a lottery system. Companies that submit hundreds, even thousands, of H-1B petitions, are the big winners.

For example, during the 2012 fiscal year, federal immigration officials approved 2,350 H-1B petitions for HCL America, 1,129 for Cisco, 1,041 for Oracle and 866 for Apple, according to H-1B data provided by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, or USCIS.

In contrast, tech companies with operations in Sonoma County received just a handful of H-1B visas. Agilent Technologies received permission to bring in 28 H-1B workers across its U.S. operations, while JDSU was approved for 25, according to USCIS data. Since these companies have locations beyond Sonoma County, it is unclear how many of these petitions are for local positions.

Jeff Weber, a spokesman for Agilent, said the company has hired a total of five H-1B workers so far this year across its U.S. operations — four in California and one outside the state. Last year, there were 26 H-1B hires, including 17 in California and nine outside the state.

"Expansion of the H-1B visa cap is important for technology companies like Agilent that rely on specialized talent from all over the world," Weber said. "We would benefit to the extent that there would be a larger pool of talent available to help meet our needs for specialized talent. We are continuing to follow this issue at our office in Washington D.C."

But the idea that there are not enough American STEM workers to fill current job openings has roiled a wide swath of U.S. interests, from American technology workers who are having a hard time finding work to academic researchers who say they've seen no evidence of a domestic high-tech labor shortage.

The original Senate immigration bill, S 744, drafted by the bipartisan "gang of eight" senators, included language that would have required employers to give priority to American workers who are "equally or better qualified" than an H-1B applicant.

But that language was killed through an amendment championed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. The fallout, according to some researchers, will be fewer STEM jobs going to American workers and suppressed wages driven down by lower-paid foreign employees.

"The people that are getting the hardest hit are people out of work," said Hal Salzman, professor of public policy at Rutgers University's Edward J. Bloustein School.

Salzman said his research shows there is no current shortage of tech workers in the United States and that any increase in the nation's high-tech guest worker program will likely suppress already stagnant wages and continue hinder the growth of the domestic IT workforce.

"There are no numbers to back up a shortage, and we look at every data set that we can get our hands up," he said.

Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, said increasing the number of H-1B visas locally is not likely to have a big impact on the county's high-tech and IT employee pool.

"We're not like Silicon Valley in terms of our numbers," he said. "We don't have that big of an industry. We have H1-Bs, we just don't have the volume."

But he said an increase would give the county's local tech employers more hiring flexibility.

Cyan's Pradels agrees.

"I have positions that have been open for more than six months at this point. We just continue to have issues finding the right talent to fill them," he said.

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