Record applications for H-1B visas that allow US businesses to hire foreign technology workers mean firms only have a 36 per cent chance of being granted one.
Applications totalled a record 233,000 for the 2016 fiscal year, according to government figures released on Monday. A maximum of 85,000 of the work visas, including 20,000 for holders of master's degrees, are available each year under limits set by Congress.
The US Citizenship and Immigration Services used a computer-generated lottery process to dole out the visas and will start processing them by May 11, the agency said on its web site.
"Year after year, the government falls back on a lottery system to determine which US employers will 'win' the ability to hire top world talent," Lynn Shotwell, executive director of an industry lobby group the Council for Global Immigration.
"This year, employers had a mere 36 per cent chance of being granted an H-1B visa. US economic growth should not be left up to this gamble," Shotwell said, adding US employers were frustrated.
The visas cover workers specialising in science, engineering and computer programming and there has been years of heavy lobbying by tech companies to raise the Congress cap.
Estimates from Compete America, a coalition representing tech giants including Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft, suggest the US loses about 500,000 jobs a year because of the limits. Labour organisations are also critical of the program itself, which they say keeps down wages in the tech sector.
Last November, President Barack Obama used his executive authority to make it easier for entrepreneurs to work in the US and extended a program letting foreign students who graduate with advanced degrees from US universities to work there temporarily.
The move to ease immigration rules largely disappointed tech industry leaders who say it did not go far enough, but major changes require congressional action and there appears to be little promise for such legislation in the current political atmosphere.