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By Benhur C. Saladores

SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (October 27, 1998 - Saipan Tribune)--- Thousands of illegal foreign workers may begin to avail themselves of the limited immunity offer of the government earlier than the planned December 2 implementation date once the Department of Labor and Immigration (DOLI) completes implementing guidelines, lawmakers said yesterday.

The House of Representatives is expected to amend the amnesty law, changing the initial date in view of the speedy compliance by DOLI officials on the 90-day grace period given for the drawing up of regulations.

A draft is currently under review by lawmakers and revisions will be made on some of the guidelines to suit the intent of Public Law 11-13 which was passed as part of the immigration reforms by the administration of Gov. Pedro P. Tenorio.

"There are minor changes and hopefully the final (draft) will be coming in (today)," said Rep. Oscar Babauta, a member of the House Labor and Immigration Committee.

The draft, subject to legislative approval, defines illegal aliens who could qualify for the immunity program and outlines procedures for availing the one-time offer which has been set initially to start on December 2.

The committee met with DOLI Secretary Mark Zachares yesterday to discuss the status of the guidelines as well as to update legislators on various labor and immigration issues.

House Speaker Diego T. Benavente said they hope to come up with the regulations before the expiration of the grace period in a bid to make the effective date earlier than that mandated under the law.

"We (want) to come in and amend the law and make that effective as soon as possible to assist the current situation with companies that say the (labor) moratorium law is hurting them," Benavente told reporters after the meeting.

He said they have asked DOLI officials to present the draft to the business sector, including the Saipan Chamber of Commerce and the hotel and garment associations, and get their input as well.

Hailing the immunity law, private industries are banking on the program to boost the labor pool in the wake of the hiring ban on foreign manpower imposed by the Northern Mariana Islands government last April.

Under the six-month amnesty offer, overstaying non-resident workers, tourists, students, missionaries or holders of short and long-term business permits who entered the Northern Marianas on or before January 1, 1998 are eligible to seek immunity.

They will be given six months after the date it becomes effective to legalize their status in the commonwealth by registering at the Department of Labor and Immigration, after which a 90-day temporary work authorization permit will be issued for them to secure a job.

Although there are no official figures on the number of overstaying foreigners on the islands, estimates by government and the private sector range from 5,000 to 15,000 illegal aliens.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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