(Bloomberg) — Cristina Martinez Mortola has a lot riding on her application for a temporary skilled-worker visa. So does her boss, SendHub co-founder Garrett Johnson.

Martinez Mortola is competing for one of 85,000 H-1B visas that make up the U.S. government limit for this year, and demand is so high that 65,000 of those may be awarded through a lottery. Random selection means more risk for the technology companies that dominate these visas, and also may leave them waiting for months to find out if their employees are chosen.

“Every company lives and dies by the talent it has access to,” Johnson says. And Martinez Mortola, who manages customer support for his web-and-mobile-communication startup’s 100,000 clients, is “invaluable,” he says.

Martinez Mortola, 28, a Panamanian with a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has worked at the Menlo Park, Calif.-based company since August. Her current visa expires in June.

While she can apply for an extension of her visa if SendHub’s petition for an H-1B is denied, she says if both fail she’ll have to leave her husband and job in the U.S.

Government and company officials say the cap on the H-1B visas could be reached within five days after the application period opened Monday.

If applications exceed the limit in that time period, which the Citizenship and Immigration Services has said could happen, the slots will be awarded by lottery rather than by order of filing.

The employer-sponsored visa allows 65,000 professionals with a college degree or equivalent experience to work in the United States for three years with extensions to six years and beyond. It took 10 weeks to reach the quota last year and until Nov. 22 in 2011. An additional 20,000 slots are available for the first petitions for employees with a master’s degree or higher from a U.S. university. That allows for 85,000 H-1B workers plus those granted under other exemptions.

“It really is a race,” says Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at Washington-based Brookings Institution who studies issues involving the visas. Immigration is already a hot topic in Washington, and he says demand for H-1Bs could focus the issue more intensely. “If the cap is reached fast, that will spark controversy,” he says.

This year’s competition for visas takes place against the backdrop of a national immigration debate. Two bills — one to make the H-1B system more restrictive and another to raise the cap — have been introduced in Congress this year. The proposals, or parts of them, could be included in a broader package on immigration being drafted by a bipartisan group of eight senators, which the White House anticipates could be filed in April.

‘Real constraint’

Technology companies including Intel Corp., the world’s largest chipmaker, say more H-1B visas would keep jobs in the United States and prevent the uncertainty caused by a lottery.

“That puts a real constraint on our ability to hire the skilled workers we need to allow us to innovate, create new products and create new jobs,” says Peter Muller, director of government relations for Intel.

Workers’ groups including the AFL-CIO and some academics say raising the cap would cost Americans jobs. Companies don’t have to try to hire U.S. workers before seeking H-1B workers, and critics say a rule requiring that visa holders earn a standard industry wage is tough to enforce.

Companies in computer, math and science fields dominate H-1B visa applications and have spent years pushing for a higher quota. For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2011, 48.9% of approved petitions for initial employment were in computer- related occupations, and 11.3% went to architecture, engineering and surveying professionals.

Demand growing

Demand has grown as employers have drained the U.S. talent pool, says Emily Lam, senior director of health care and federal issues at Silicon Valley Leadership Group. The San Jose, Calif.-based policy group, whose members include AT&T Inc. and Yahoo! Inc., is pushing for immigration changes.

“The economy is picking up,” Lam says. ”Many of our employers are saying that hiring is robust.”

The unemployment rate for information workers in February was the lowest for that month since 2007, according to non-seasonally adjusted data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Computer, engineering and science occupations will grow by 17% between 2010 and 2020, compared with 14.3% for all U.S. occupations, based on BLS projections.

The 65,000 cap for H-1B workers has been in place since 2003 with the masters exemption added in 2005. There are exceptions for nonprofit groups that conduct research, universities and governmental research organizations. The program went to a lottery for fiscal years starting Oct. 1, 2007 and 2008.

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