Nearly four months ago, President Donald Trump ordered an end to family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border after his policy provoked a bipartisan outcry and bad optics.
“I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated," Trump said June 20.
That was just a few weeks after the Department of Homeland Security announced it would carry out the separate detention for children brought here without documents. They ended up numbering in the thousands.
In a "60 Minutes" interview that aired Sunday, Trump declined to say if he would revive the policy. "Well, we're looking at a lot of things. Really what we want to do is change the immigration laws," he said.
"You can't say yes or no. What I can say is this: There are consequences from coming into a country, namely our country, illegally."
Declining to rule out the policy does not mean he's ready to reinstate it. More likely Trump wishes to keep the posture that it could happen. The logic would be that signalling a risk of entering the U.S. might deter some from trying. Tough talk seems to have had that effect in the past.
Warnings against adults arriving here unauthorized with children in tow aren't new.
In 2014, the Obama administration broadcast ads in Central America warning potential migrants: "The journey is too dangerous. ... Children will not get legal papers if they make it. ... You are putting yourself, or your child, in danger."
But it has a different meaning now in our domestic politics. Trump might wish to offset any impression among his supporters due to vote Nov. 6 in the midterm congressional races that he's failing or softening.
The message is nevertheless softer to those paying attention. On ABC's "Good Morning America" last week, first lady Melania Trump commented retroactively on the June controversy over family separations.
“I saw it on the news, and I reacted right away,” she said. “It was unacceptable for me to see children and parents separated. It was heartbreaking. And I reacted with my own voice.
“I didn't know that that policy would come out. I was blindsided by it."
There are still 1,500 children separated from their parents who are at the Tornillo Detention Facility in Texas at the Mexican border, as Fox News reported over the weekend. Migrant shelters in the area are overfilled.
Of course, vague warnings alone don't work. Officials also reported that in August, border patrol agents caught 12,744 migrant family members, up 38 percent from the previous month.
Speaking to reporters over the weekend, Trump offered a new round of generalizations that could dampen any incipient sympathy for these migrants.
"You have really bad people coming in and using people. They're not their children. They don't even know the children," he said. "They haven't known the children for 20 minutes. And they grab children and they use them to come into our country."
With the ultimate impact of current Trump administration policies and any future congressional action still unknown, the president is thus trying to defend his "zero-tolerance" proclamations as something compassionate rather than cruel.
Nearly two years into the administration, this issue is still in flux.