President Joe Biden speaks with US Customs and Border Protection officers as he visited the US-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on January 8.

A version of this story appears in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.

CNN  — 

President Joe Biden’s immigration policy is confusing and full of contradictions.

Make some sense of these developments:

Biden …

  • made his first visit to the border as president on Sunday, but failed to see any migrants …
  • is expanding former President Donald Trump’s border policy, known as Title 42, even though Biden says he doesn’t like it …
  • asked courts to end that Trump-era policy, but seemingly had no workable plan for when they nearly did …
  • has traveled to Mexico City for a summit with North American leaders, but his White House is making very clear they aren’t anticipating any progress on the border crisis …
  • watches on as Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, in particular, freelances his own border security with increasingly elaborate stunts to argue the border is too porous. The latest involves adding a wall of shipping containers to the border at El Paso, Texas.

A long-awaited border visit minus any migrants

How did Biden visit an aid center at the border during an admitted crisis and fail to encounter any actual migrants?

“There just weren’t any at the center when he arrived,” a senior administration official said in Priscilla Alvarez and MJ Lee’s report for CNN. “Completely coincidental. They haven’t had any today.”

Granted, border crossings have dropped in the new year.

But Alvarez and Lee point to on-the-ground reporting from CNN’s Rosa Flores that “hundreds of migrants, including children, were living on the street after crossing into the United States in El Paso. And nearly 1,000 additional migrants were in federal custody in detention facilities in El Paso on Sunday, according to the City of El Paso’s migrant dashboard.”

A letter from Abbott

Abbott hand-delivered a message to Biden on the tarmac in El Paso complaining Biden hasn’t paid enough attention to the border. The strongly worded letter was also posted on Abbott’s website.

“Your visit avoids the sites where mass illegal immigration occurs and sidesteps the thousands of angry Texas property owners whose lives have been destroyed by your border policies,” Abbott wrote.

Rather than meet with migrants, Biden focused on meeting with border enforcement personnel, including in a quick stop alongside an iron fence between the US and Mexico. Reporters were kept at a distance. Read the full report from Alvarez and Lee.

Allowing more in, pushing more away

What’s no coincidence is the administration’s hard-to-follow immigration policy.

As part of the new immigration plan announced last week, Biden said the US would accept up to 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela into a humanitarian “parole program,” but then also made clear Title 42 would be applied in a new way, continuing the policy of turning away more people at the border.

The idea is to get people to apply legally from home rather than just show up at the border.

Expanding something he didn’t write and doesn’t like

CNN’s Catherine Shoichet does an admirable job of trying to keep track of Biden’s relationship with Title 42, the Trump-era pandemic policy written by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, not Congress, and which has morphed into de facto US immigration policy.

It allows the government to turn away more migrants at the border. When it appeared Title 42 would lapse at the end of 2022, a mass of migrants gathered at the border in anticipation.

“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,” Shoichet writes.

Take a look at her timeline of the Biden administration’s evolution on Title 42. The recent expansion of the policy came after the Supreme Court required officials to maintain it.

Disappointment among Democrats

A group of Democratic lawmakers said they were “deeply disappointed” in the new version of the policy, which they argued would “do nothing to restore the rule of law at the border.”

“Instead, it will increase border crossings over time and further enrich human smuggling networks,” Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico and Alex Padilla of California wrote in a joint statement.

It’s a concern Biden actually shares. Even though he is essentially expanding the policy, the president also acknowledged last week his move could makes things worse because it almost encourages people turned away at the border to try repeatedly to enter the US.

Don’t expect much out of the Mexico City meeting

White House officials are tamping down expectations for Biden’s meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is often referred to in shorthand as AMLO.

Mexico recently agreed to accept up to 30,000 migrants per month from the four countries included in the new policy who attempt to enter the US and are turned back.

AMLO has suggested Mexico could accept more. But national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the policy will need time to play out before anyone should expect tweaks.

While it’s hard to make sense of Biden’s border policy, it’s important to remember the systemic dysfunction of the US border debate that has paralyzed Congress for decades.

The issue of immigration is top of mind for Republicans who now control the House, but it’s not at all clear there will be any movement toward the kind of bipartisan and comprehensive efforts that could change things.

Meantime, Biden will be left to the existing policies, even if they were written under the previous administration and kept in place, for now, by the Supreme Court.