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$133 Million FEMA Grant Secured for Julius E. Sprauve School Reconstruction

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stack of dollars spread out

Governor Albert Bryan and Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett have proudly announced the allocation of a substantial $133 million federal grant from FEMA for the rebuilding of Julius E. Sprauve School on St. John. This funding is a significant step forward in the post-hurricane reconstruction efforts of the Virgin Islands, following the devastation caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Governor Bryan hailed this funding as a landmark moment in the evolution of St. John’s educational landscape. He emphasized that this grant will facilitate the creation of a modern educational facility, representing a robust commitment to the island’s youth and the overall resilience of the Virgin Islands.

Congresswoman Plaskett underscored the timely nature of this grant, which is instrumental in the construction of a much-needed K-12 school on St. John. She noted the funding’s adherence to the prudent replacement standard, essential for bolstering disaster preparedness and resilience. “The legislative changes I helped enact enable FEMA to rebuild essential infrastructure like Julius Sprauve School, incorporating resilient design and up-to-date building standards, despite the pre-hurricane conditions in the Virgin Islands,” she remarked.

The future site of the new school, however, remains uncertain, pending a land swap deal. This deal involves exchanging a parcel of land in Estate Catherineberg, currently under the National Park Service, for Whistling Island, also known as Whistling Cay. The agreement faced a setback after senators rejected an amendment proposed by Senator Angel Bolques Jr. in Act 8741, which sought to ensure public access to Fungi Passage at Whistling Kay. The amendment was voted down, leaving the fate of the land swap unresolved.

Ms. Plaskett praised Governor Bryan and his team for their diligence in securing a grant that comprehensively addresses community needs and accurately reflects the extent of damage caused by the storms.

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$16.5 Million Boost for USVI Water Infrastructure Courtesy of EPA

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The U.S. Virgin Islands are poised for a significant enhancement of their water infrastructure, thanks to a generous allocation from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as part of President Joe Biden’s ambitious Investing in America initiative. This move is a reflection of the administration’s commitment to bolstering the nation’s infrastructure and ensuring equitable access to clean water for all communities.

Under the auspices of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a sweeping $50 billion has been earmarked for nationwide water infrastructure improvements. The U.S. Virgin Islands stand to benefit from a substantial $16.5 million of this funding. The EPA has designed nearly half of these funds to be accessible as either grants or loans that don’t require repayment, targeting those communities historically left behind and most in need of modernizing their water systems.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan hailed this allocation as “the largest water infrastructure investment in our nation’s history,” underscoring the transformative potential of these funds. “Through this unprecedented investment, communities across the country, including those in the U.S. Virgin Islands, will be empowered to secure safer drinking water and revamp their clean water infrastructure, safeguarding public health for generations,” Regan remarked.

Lisa Garcia, the EPA’s regional administrator, underscored the significance of this investment for the U.S. Virgin Islands. She highlighted the timely nature of this funding in addressing the critical need for upgrades in water infrastructure, particularly in those areas most in need.

The investment earmarked for the USVI is part of a broader $5.8 billion initiative through the EPA’s Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (SRF), which are pivotal in the agency’s water investment strategy. These funds are set to support the territory’s efforts in managing low-interest loan programs that tackle paramount challenges. Specifically, $2.6 billion is allocated for the Clean Water SRF to enhance wastewater and stormwater infrastructure, with an additional $3.2 billion directed towards the Drinking Water SRF for improvements in drinking water systems.

Since the inception of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2022, over $102 million has been funneled into various water infrastructure projects within the U.S. Virgin Islands. This strategic investment not only aims to fortify public health and preserve vital water resources but also to spur job creation, marking a milestone in the territory’s ongoing efforts to build a sustainable and resilient future.

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New Fee Structure for Immigration Services to Commence in April 2024

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The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced on January 30 the introduction of a revised fee structure for various immigration and naturalization requests, marking the first such update since 2016. This adjustment aims to enhance the agency’s capability to cover operational expenses more comprehensively and to streamline the processing of applications.

Following a detailed fee review as required by legislation, this update is based on the initial rule proposal shared in January 2023. The review identified that the existing fees fell short of fully financing the operational needs of USCIS, including the growth of humanitarian initiatives, federally mandated salary increases, staffing needs, and other essential investments.

USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou highlighted the significance of these changes, noting, “After over seven years, USCIS is revising our fee structure to more effectively support our agency’s operations, thus allowing us to make more expedient decisions for our clients.” She commended the USCIS staff for their dedication to enhancing customer service and reducing backlogs, despite historical financial limitations.

The agency received in excess of 5,400 public comments following the January 2023 proposal, leading to several pivotal adjustments in the final rule, such as:

  • A $727 million reduction in the annual cost recovery goal through efficiency improvements.
  • More extensive fee waivers for Special Immigrant Juveniles, victims of human trafficking, crimes, and domestic violence, members of the U.S. military and their Afghan allies, and families engaged in international adoptions.
  • Fee reductions for certain nonprofit organizations and small businesses.
  • Decreased charges for some Employment Authorization Document requests and adjustments of status under particular circumstances.
  • Increased access to a 50% discount on naturalization applications for households earning between 150% and 400% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
  • A universal $50 discount for applications submitted online.

Limitations on Fee Increases

The revised rule guarantees that fees will not exceed the amounts proposed, capping most increases for individual applicants to a maximum of 26%—in line with the Consumer Price Index rise since 2016.

The updated fees are part of USCIS’s ongoing efforts to utilize innovative solutions to enhance the client experience and mitigate backlogs. Despite the fee hikes, the agency recognizes the continued necessity for additional funding from Congress to address the surging case volumes, especially those stemming from recent border crossings.

The new fee structure will be effective from April 1, 2024. USCIS has also announced a grace period running from April 1 to June 3, 2024, during which it will accept both the old and new editions of certain forms with the appropriate fees. There will be no grace period for forms like I-129, I-129 CW, I-140, I-600A, and I-600, due to the updated fee calculations.

USCIS advises stakeholders to refer to the Frequently Asked Questions section on its website for additional information, stating that the applicable form version and fees will be determined by the postmark date, with the receipt date used for any regulatory or statutory filing deadlines.

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International Dark Web Drug Network Involving U.S. Virgin Islands Dismantled

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In a significant development, the U.S. Department of Justice announced on Friday the guilty plea of an Indian national in a sprawling drug trafficking and money laundering conspiracy. This complex network, which cleverly utilized the dark web to obscure its operations, had links extending to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The individual at the center of this conspiracy is 40-year-old Banmeet Singh, apprehended in London in 2019. U.S. federal officials disclosed that Singh masterminded eight distribution cells across the United States for over four and a half years. These cells were integral in receiving, repackaging, and redistributing drug shipments from abroad. The network’s reach spanned all 50 states of the U.S., including the U.S. Virgin Islands, and extended internationally to Jamaica, Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland. Singh was extradited to the United States in 2023 to stand trial.

DEA officials have identified fentanyl as one of the key illegal substances trafficked by Singh’s operation.

Singh confessed to establishing vendor profiles on several notorious dark web marketplaces, such as Silk Road, Alpha Bay, and Hansa. These platforms were used to sell controlled substances in exchange for cryptocurrency, with subsequent order fulfillment involving U.S. mail and other delivery services.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole Argentieri, representing the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, remarked on the misguided belief among traffickers that the dark web offers anonymity and protection from law enforcement. Singh’s admission of guilt dispels this myth and underscores the Justice Department’s resolve to pursue and prosecute those who flout U.S. laws, regardless of their methods of concealment.

Over the duration of his criminal activities, Mr. Singh reportedly accumulated in excess of $150 million, which he converted into cryptocurrency. As part of his plea agreement, he is obliged to surrender these funds.

Currently, Mr. Singh is awaiting sentencing, with an agreed upon term of eight years in prison. The date for the formal sentencing has yet to be scheduled.

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