Asylum-seekers line up to be processed by US Customs and Border Patrol agents at a gap in the US-Mexico border fence near Somerton, Arizona, on December 26, 2022.
CNN  — 

President Joe Biden just made a point that’s surprising to those of us who’ve been closely following his administration’s approach to migration at the southern border.

“I don’t like Title 42,” Biden told reporters following a speech at the White House Thursday afternoon.

That comment was startling because it came minutes after his administration announced a program that effectively expands the controversial public health restrictions yet again.

It was another sign that even as the administration publicly decries Title 42 and says it’s preparing to end it, officials have repeatedly turned to the Trump-era policy as a tool to manage a spiraling situation at the border.

Since March 2020, Title 42 has allowed officials to swiftly expel migrants who crossed the border illegally, all in the name of Covid-19 prevention. There have been nearly 2.5 million expulsions – mostly under the Biden administration.

Officials have claimed court decisions left them with no other choice, but they’ve also chosen to expand the policy beyond any court’s order.

Immigrant rights advocates say this is hypocritical and unnecessary, and argue it’s high time for officials to stop using public health as a pretext to block migrants from seeking asylum in the United States. Republican-led states argue Title 42 has become a crucial policy at the border, and that lifting it will cause chaos amid an expected spike in border crossings.

Biden’s assertion Thursday that he doesn’t like Title 42 came in response to a reporter’s question about why it’s taken him so long to visit the border (His scheduled visit to El Paso Sunday will be the first of his presidency).

The president blamed uncertainty over Title 42’s future for the delay, adding that he felt he had to make the trip and take further action once it became clear that the Supreme Court wouldn’t rule on the policy until later this year.

“I wanted to make sure that I knew what the outcome was, at least the near outcome was, on Title 42, before I went down,” Biden said. “We don’t have that yet…I don’t like Title 42. But it’s the law now, and I have to operate within it.”

President Joe Biden is flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris as he speaks about US-Mexico border security and enforcement at the White House on January 5, 2023.

This timeline shows the administration’s shifting stance on Title 42

Over the past two years, the Biden administration has sent mixed messages about where it stands on the policy.

Thursday was just the latest example.

Here’s a quick look at how the administration’s stance has shifted:

  • October 12, 2022: Officials expand the use of Title 42, applying the policy to Venezuelan migrants at the border while also opening up a new humanitarian parole application process to give Venezuelans with sponsors a legal pathway to enter the US. The administration touts the approach’s success at dramatically reducing the number of Venezuelan migrants illegally crossing the border.
  • November 15, 2022: After a federal judge in the District of Columbia orders the end of Title 42, the administration says it will comply. But later the Justice Department appeals the judge’s ruling, arguing that while in this case officials don’t believe continued use of Title 42 is justified, in the future officials should be able to implement public health restrictions at the border when appropriate.
  • December 20, 2022: The Biden administration asks the Supreme Court to allow Title 42 to end as the district court has ordered and rule against Republican-led states that have filed a legal challenge to that ruling. “The government recognizes that the end of the Title 42 orders will likely lead to disruption and a temporary increase in unlawful border crossings. The government in no way seeks to minimize the seriousness of that problem,” the solicitor general argues in a court filing. “But the solution to that immigration problem cannot be to extend indefinitely a public-health measure that all now acknowledge has outlived its public-health justification.”
  • December 27, 2022: After a Supreme Court order requires officials to keep Title 42 in place while legal challenges play out, the administration says the policy will remain in effect and “individuals who attempt to enter the United States unlawfully will continue to be expelled to Mexico or their home country.”
  • January 5, 2023: Pointing to the success of its Venezuela program, officials announce that migrants from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua will now be subjected to a similar system. A humanitarian parole program will allow up to 30,000 migrants from those three countries and Venezuela to come to the US monthly. And those who don’t follow that legal pathway will be expelled under Title 42. Asked by reporters whether the program will remain in place even if Title 42 is lifted, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas says officials could use other methods to kick out migrants who don’t immigrate legally.
Venezuelan migrants wave flags on the banks of the Rio Grande while protesting new US migration enforcement rules in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on October 18, 2022.

Biden says Title 42’s effects make problems at the border ‘even worse’

In separate press briefings discussing the new program Thursday, Mayorkas and Biden acknowledged that Title 42 has increased the number of illegal border crossings.

“People are turned away under Title 42, and they’re not barred from trying to come back. They can and they do try to enter the United States again and again, which makes the problem at the border even worse,” Biden said, noting that it won’t be until later this year that the Supreme Court finally decides whether the policy can be ended.

“In the meantime, my administration will continue to use that authority as the Supreme Court has required,” he said. “And until Congress passes the funds, a comprehensive immigration plan to fix the system completely, my administration is going to work to make the situation at the border better using the tools that we have available to us now.”

It’s clear the Biden administration still sees Title 42 as one of those tools, even as officials try to distance themselves from the policy.

CNN’s Ariane de Vogue and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.