WASHINGTON -- 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 may leave them waiting for months to find out whether their employees are chosen."Every company lives and dies by the talent it has access to," Johnson said. And Martinez Mortola, who manages customer support for his Web-and-mobile-communication startup's 100,000 clients, is "invaluable," he said.Martinez Mortola, 28, a Panamanian with a master's in engineering management from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, has worked at the Menlo Park, Calif., company since August. Her 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 that if both fail she'll have to leave her husband and job in the United States.Government and company officials say the cap on the H-1B visas could be reached within five days after the application period opens today.If applications exceed the limit so soon, which the U.S. 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 U.S. 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," said Neil Ruiz, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who studies issues involving the visas. Immigration is already a hot topic in Washington, and he said demand for H-1Bs could focus the issue more intensely. "If the cap is reached fast, that will spark controversy," he said.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.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," said 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 visa holders to 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 ending Sept. 30, 2011, 48.9 percent of approved petitions for initial employment were in computer-related occupations, and 11.3 percent went to architecture, engineering and surveying professionals.The 65,000 cap for H-1B workers has been in place since 2003 with the master's exemption added in 2005. There are exceptions for not-for-profit groups that conduct research, universities and governmental research organizations. The program went to a lottery for the fiscal years starting Oct. 1 in 2007 and 2008.More than 100 technology company leaders including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sent President Barack Obama and lawmakers a letter last month urging market-based limits for high-skilled visas.Green cards allow workers to stay in the U.S. permanently. Employers must try to fill a position with an American first, there are limits on the number allowed from each country, and the approval process is lengthy.