The federal law criminalizing “improper entry” by aliens does not require family separation. The law also provides for the use of civil penalties, as well as criminal ones. While it states that the application of civil penalties does not preclude application of criminal ones, it also does not compel federal prosecutors to pursue both. Until the administration’s recent policy change, civil proceedings were in fact the usual approach in case of families with minor children, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The use of civil proceedings generally does not require pretrial detention of any kind, and therefore obviates the need to detain either parents or children. And, in some cases, the administration has even forcibly separated children from migrants who have not violated any law, but instead have legally crossed the border to petition for asylum in the United States.

The Trump administration claims that their policy is required by the 1997 Flores court settlement. But that settlement in no way mandates family separation and detention of children away from their parents. To the contrary, it instructs federal officials to “place each detained minor in the least restrictive setting appropriate” and to release them to the custody of family or guardians “without unnecessary delay.” The settlement also mandates that federal immigration officials must “treat, all minors in its custody with dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability as minors.” Detaining children under harsh conditions, separated from their parents, is pretty obviously not “the least restrictive setting” possible, and it most definitely doesn’t qualify as treating children with “dignity, respect and special concern for their particular vulnerability.”