Two months ago, when the U.S. government began accepting petitions from employers seeking visas for high-skilled foreign workers, it took only a week to reach the nation's cap of 65,000 visas.

That triggered a lottery, a selection process favoring large U.S. companies that each year submit hundreds, even thousands, of petitions for the coveted H-1B visas.

Under the current language of the immigration bill being debated in the U.S. Senate, the annual cap would be raised to 115,000 new visas — and as high as 180,000 under certain conditions.

Tech industry lobbyists argue the increase is necessary because of a shortage of high-tech workers inside the United States.

But the proposed increase has angered many U.S. tech workers and their advocates, who contend the "tech shortage" is a ruse. They say the practice of hiring young H-1B employees is driven by an attempt to maximize profits.

H-1B employees snag between one third and half of all new tech jobs in the country, according to a recent study of the country's high-skilled guest worker program.

Only half of all U.S. computer, information science and engineering graduates are hired into their field each year, according to the study co-authored by Hal Salzman, professor of public policy at Rutgers University.

Among the computer science grads who didn't get hired, nearly a third said no IT jobs were available. Almost half said they chose to seek jobs in other fields after finding that pay and working conditions in the IT sector were lower than they had expected.

Salzman's study found that wages for tech workers has remained flat over the past 15 years, at about where they were in 1998, even as guest workers make up an increasing share of the IT labor market.

"Immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guest workers will supply labor at wages that are too low to induce significant increases in the supply from the domestic workforce," the study said.

Dave Chapman, a tech worker who used to live in Sebastopol, said it is increasingly difficult for older, white American-born tech workers to find full-time work. At times, he has walked into a Silicon Valley company for a job interview and been the only white person in the room. Chapman and other critics of the H-1B program contend that more than a decade of H-1B hiring has created a "culture" of hiring preferences for foreign workers at many tech companies.

"Overt discrimination against white people started about six years ago," he said.

Chapman, who specializes in writing device drivers and embedded software for routers, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he did his undergraduate work, and Yale University, where he received a master's degree in semiconductor physics.

He said he recently had to sell his Sebastopol home and move to Woodside, a small city in San Mateo County, when he couldn't find a job in Sonoma County.

H-1B employees recruited from places like India and other Asian countries are often paid about a third less than American workers, he said.

"When they bring in H-1Bs, the people that get laid off are in their 40s, Americans that are perceived to be old and overpaid and have obsolete skills," he said.

Those who favor increasing the H-1B cap reject the argument that H-1B employees are a source of cheap labor.

Most H-1B employers pay the prevailing wage, said Laura Mazel, a partner with Weaver Schlenger Mazel LLP, a San Francisco-based business immigration law firm.

But advocates for American workers and some researchers say that prevailing wages often reflect a baseline pay that is significantly below what many employers pay American workers.

Adam Green, an immigration attorney who represents the Buck Institute in Novato, among others, said he has not encountered any instances where employers underpay H-1B employees. He said those who vie for such visas are "professionals" and employers are competing for them.

"If there were enough American workers, we wouldn't be having this debate. I don't believe Microsoft and Google go out of their way to hire foreign students," he said. "What they do is hire the best and the brightest who have recently graduated. ... I think we're a victim of industry wanting people with the latest knowledge coming out of universities."

Still, he said, "If a 50-year-old has that, then Google should hire that American worker."

The original version of the Senate immigration bill, crafted by the so-called bipartisan Gang of Eight, contained language that would have required U.S. companies to give priority to American workers who are "equally or better qualified" than H-1B candidates.

That language was taken out of the bill through an amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in a letter <NO1><NO>sent to senators letter last week, said the labor union was "committed" to having that language reinstated.