Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson went on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday to send the message that the Obama administration will "stem the tide" of undocumented immigrants currently flooding into Texas.
For most of the interview, however, he inadvertently illustrated why conservatives think President Obama is soft on illegal immigration and why they think his policies are largely to blame for a nearly 10-fold increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border since 2011.
Three times, host David Gregory tried to pin down Secretary Johnson on whether most of the 52,000 undocumented children who have crossed the border illegally and alone since the beginning of October will be deported. And three times, Johnson turned to his talking points.
"There is a deportation proceeding that is commenced against the child," Johnson said when asked the first time. "Now that proceeding can take some time, and so we're looking at options – added flexibility to deal with the children in particular."
Mr. Gregory acknowledged the process, but pressed for a more direct answer: "Are they going to be deported or not?"
Johnson gave an answer almost identical to the first: "There is a deportation proceeding that is commenced against illegal migrants, including children. We are looking at ways to create additional options for dealing with the children in particular consistent with our laws and our values."
Many conservatives could have easily offered Gregory the categorical answer he was looking for. In fact, Rep. Mike Rogers (R) of Alabama gave it to Johnson two weeks ago in the form of a question during a congressional hearing.
"Why aren't we putting them on a bus like we normally do and send them back down to Guatemala?"
For Representative Rogers and many like-minded conservatives, the material point in the current border crisis is that these migrants are breaking the law. Perhaps some small number deserve asylum, but the vast majority must be deported or America's border security is a sham, they argue.
To their minds, the shades of gray are few, if any: Immigrants can't just break down the front door to get into America.
But Johnson's appearance on "Meet the Press" Sunday suggests that the Obama administration policy has many shades of gray, at least on the issue of unaccompanied minors.
Later in the interview, Gregory asked whether the administration's priority is to "do right by these children" or to "clamp down on the border."
Johnson responded immediately and forcefully. "There's the issue," he said. "We have to do right by the children."
Is it humane to send young girls back to a country (Honduras) where the murder rate for women went up 65 percent from 2010 to 2013? Is it compassionate to send children back to gang warfare and mayhem when relatives already in the United States could care for these children and perhaps give them a better life? Do we have a responsibility as a nation when the poor and wounded come to our doorstep for help?
These are some of the shades of gray in the current border crisis, and Johnson appeared most animated when Gregory asked him about protests in Murrieta, Calif., last week that turned back three busloads of undocumented women and children.
"I look at it, and it is unfortunate to see that type of hostility directed at women and children on a bus, frankly," he said.
This willingness to inhabit the gray areas of policy is characteristic of Obama's presidency. He opened talks with Iran. He has swapped five Taliban detainees at Guantànamo for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. He has taken executive action to defer deportation for some young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before 2007.
It is that last decision, made in 2012, that many critics say is central to the current crisis. On Sunday, Johnson acknowledged that the "coyotes" who smuggle immigrants to the border are misrepresenting White House policy in an attempt to cash in. In 2011, the number of unaccompanied minors crossing US borders was a mere 6,500.
Johnson said categorically Sunday that the administration would get a handle on the current crisis. "In the final analysis, our border is not open to illegal migration, and we will stem the tide," he said.
On the issue of unaccompanied minors, however, the message he delivered was carefully nuanced.