Sweeping federal review could affect consent decrees nationwide

According to a New York Times report, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ordered a review of federal agreements with various law enforcement agencies across the country, an order that reflects President Donald Trump’s focus on law and order and could lead to a retreat on consent decrees with troubled police departments nationwide.

In a memorandum made public Monday, Sessions directed his staff to look at whether law enforcement programs adhere to principles put forth by the Trump administration, including one declaring that “the individual misdeeds of bad actors should not impugn” the work police officers perform “in keeping American communities safe,” the article states.

According to the Times, as part of its shift in emphasis, the Justice Department went to court on Monday to seek a 90-day delay in a consent decree to overhaul Baltimore’s embattled police department. That request came days before a hearing, scheduled for Thursday in the United States District Court in Baltimore, to solicit public comment on the agreement, which was reached in principle by the city and the Justice Department in the waning days of the Obama administration.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said late Monday that the city would “strongly oppose any delay in moving forward,” according to the article. Supporters of police reform called on Judge James K. Bredar, who is overseeing the negotiations between Baltimore and the Justice Department, to deny the request, arguing that Sessions was interfering with the will of the city.

“This has all been negotiated by the affected parties,” said Ray Kelly, the president of the No Boundaries Coalition, a citizen advocacy group. Referring to Sessions, he said, “Now we have an outside entity telling us what’s best for our citizens and our community when he has no experience, no knowledge.”

According to the article, Baltimore is one of nearly two dozen cities — including Ferguson, Missouri, Cleveland and Seattle — that were the subject of aggressive efforts by the Obama administration to improve relations between the police and the communities they serve. That effort produced so-called consent decrees with 14 departments.

The review could threaten some of those decrees if the Justice Department seeks to change its past stance about systematic police abuses in the affected agencies, according to the article, but the Justice Department would not be able to unilaterally unwind the agreements without court intervention.

According to the Times, in its court filings on Monday, the Justice Department noted that the Trump administration had “announced several new initiatives and policies that prioritize combating and preventing violent crime” in response to spikes in violence in cities across the country, including Baltimore.

Sessions has expressed deep skepticism about the value of consent decrees like the one planned for Baltimore, saying they vilify the police, and he has indicated that he wants to scale them back, according to the article. Sessions said the agreements were demoralizing to the police and could be generating a rise in violence and murders in some large cities, a contention that has been challenged by many criminologists.

Feds kick off restoration of grant aid for students affected by for-profit college closures

According to a Washington Post article, the U.S. Department of Education will begin identifying students who burned through federal Pell grants to pay for colleges that closed before they could graduate, with the goal of restoring eligibility for thousands of people.

Thousands of students affected by the closures of ITT Technical Institutes and Corinthian Colleges have found themselves in that exact position, the Post reports.

According to the article, Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, found a provision in the Higher Education Act that gives the Department of Education authority to grant students additional aid, which ultimately led former Education Secretary John King Jr. to take action.

At the end of October, the department agreed to recognize its existing authority to restore Pell eligibility to students for the time they attended schools that closed dating back to 2008, when Congress shortened the aid time frame from 18 semesters to 12, according to the article, but having those changes reflected in the operating system that governs financial aid disbursements took months.

According to the article, on Monday, John Kane, a senior official in the Federal Student Aid office, said now that the system changes are in place, the department will be sifting through records to finds students who qualify to have their eligibility restored.

“We will adjust those students’ Pell Grant ‘lifetime eligibility used’ amount to remove the portion attributable to the students’ attendance at a closed school,” he said, in a statement. “The Pell Grant adjustment will be equivalent to the Pell Grant eligibility used at the closed school for each award year for which the student received Pell Grant funds. We will make one adjustment per school, per award year.”

Those adjustments will be processed in batches after the department determines an official school closure date and verifies student data, according to the article, people who receive adjustments will be notified by email.

According to the article, more than 50,000 students enrolled at Corinthian and ITT Tech before their abrupt closures could be helped by the restoration policy, according to estimates from Murray’s office.

In 2016, the Education Department said the $30-billion Pell program benefitted more than 6 million college students from families typically earning less than $60,000 a year, according to the article. Nearly two-thirds of African American undergraduates receive Pell funding, as do 51 percent of Latino undergrads, according to the Education Trust.

Homeland Security announces steps against H1B visa fraud

According to a Reuters article, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced steps on Monday to prevent the fraudulent use of H1B visas, used by employers to bring in specialized foreign workers temporarily, which appeared to fall short of President Trump's campaign promises to overhaul the program.

A White House official said Trump may still do more on the program, according to the article.

Trump had promised to end the lottery system for H1B visas, which gives each applicant an equal chance at 65,000 positions each year.

According to the article, lobbyists for businesses who rely on H1B visas, commonly used by the tech sector, had expected Trump to upend the lottery in favor of a system that prioritized workers who are highly skilled and would be highly paid in the United States.

The lottery for fiscal year 2018 opened on Monday without changes, according to the article.

The start of the lottery was seen by those watching the issue as the unofficial deadline for the Trump administration to enact H1B visa reform, and the failure to meet that deadline signals that Trump's promised overhaul of the system may be off the table or long delayed.

"More oversight is a good start, but employers can still use the program legally to depress wages and replace American workers. That falls short of the promises President Trump made to protect American workers," said Peter Robbio, a spokesman for Numbers USA, a Washington-based group that advocates for limiting immigration into the United States.

According to the article, the Trump administration has taken other steps to crackdown on H1B visa abuse, such as issuing a Justice Department warning to employers and announcing plans to increase transparency on applicants.

"These are important first steps to bring more accountability and transparency to the H1B system," a White House official told Reuters. "The administration is considering several additional options for the president to use his existing authority to ensure federal agencies more rigorously enforce all aspects of the program."

Tech companies rely on the program to bring in workers with special skills and have lobbied for an expansion of the number of H1B visas awarded, according to the article. Proponents of limiting legal immigration, including Trump's senior adviser Stephen Miller, have argued the program gives jobs that Americans could fill to foreign workers at a less expensive cost.

The measures announced by DHS on Monday focus on site visits by U.S. authorities to employers who use H1B visas, according to the article. In future site visits, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agents will investigate incidents where an employer's basic business information cannot be validated; businesses that have a high ratio of H1B employees compared with U.S. workers; and employers petitioning for H1B workers who work off-site.

-Compiled by Matthew Reisen