Oscar Alaya-Urias, a 23-year-old Salvadoran national illegally in the United States, was one of the 24,481 unaccompanied minors (UACs) apprehended at the southern border in FY2012 — the first year of the surge of UACs and family units. Urias, a 15 year-old at the time, was issued a Notice to Appear (the charging document in removal proceedings) and was released to a sponsor — as they were required to do by law. His case was administratively closed — taken off the court's docket without a decision, but with no permanent relief from removal. He remained in the country illegally.
This week, Urias was charged with the murders of his girlfriend and her sister, and with the attempted murder of his own brother and sister in Louisiana's St. John the Baptist Parish, 30 minutes outside of New Orleans. The crimes were horrific: Urias stabbed the victims multiple times with a "machete-style knife", chasing the second murder victim outside and down a residential street before chopping her into pieces and wearing her body parts around his neck.
Thousands of UACs, like Urias, entered the U.S. in 2012, with the numbers going even higher as time went on, peaking in 2014 with 68,541 apprehensions. Jessica Vaughan, the Center's director of policy studies, wrote in 2018, "The Obama administration adopted a lenient interpretation of the law with respect to UACs, most of whom were males between the ages of 13 and 17, and who were quickly resettled with sponsors, usually family members who were already residing here illegally; some were released to non-family sponsors. The government has made almost no effort to monitor or keep track of these individuals."
It was not unusual at the time for a UAC case to be administratively closed. Andrew Arthur, the Center's resident fellow in law and policy, explained that procedure, which is not provided for in regulation: "[A]dministrative closure allows the immigration courts to shelve cases that it does not want to, or cannot, deal with, at least at the time of closure."
According to the American Immigration Council, "Administrative closure was used extensively as a form of prosecutorial discretion during the later years of the Obama Administration; in particular, [DHS] often joined in motions to administratively close cases that did not fall within its enforcement priorities."
In 2011 DHS stated it would use "prosecutorial discretion" to enforce priorities as laid out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the "Morton Memo":
Because the agency is confronted with more administrative violations than its resources can address, the agency must regularly exercise "prosecutorial discretion" if it is to prioritize its efforts. In basic terms, prosecutorial discretion is the authority of an agency charged with enforcing a law to decide to what degree to enforce the law against a particular individual. . . . When ICE favorably exercises prosecutorial discretion, it essentially decides not to assert the full scope of the enforcement authority available to the agency in a given case.
Arthur contends that "most of those administratively closed cases would likely have resulted in denials, as an alien with a strong asylum claim would have opposed administrative closure, or would have moved to re-calendar an administratively closed case."
The Trump administration has reversed the practice of administratively closing cases that are not a priority, and has effectively eliminated prioritization as well, returning "prosecutorial discretion" to its proper role as a law-enforcement tool to be used on a case-by-case basis, not a blanket abdication of authority, according to Arthur. DHS is now re-calendaring cases that previously were administratively closed.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lodged a detainer against Urias with the sheriff's office in St. John the Baptist Parish, La. The detainer will allow ICE to begin the removal process if Urias is released — a removal process that should have been seen through to the end years ago.