There's been some argument over who came out ahead in the picturesque set-to between White House staffer Stephen Miller and CNN reporter Jim Acosta over the White House support of the immigration bill sponsored by Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue. On one point at least it seems to me that Miller had the best of it when he charged that Acosta was being "ahistorical."

Acosta kept reading and reciting the Emma Lazarus poem written before the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886 but not inscribed at its base until 1903: "Give us your tired, your poor," etc. His plain implication was that the United States had an open immigration policy back in the years before World War I.

That implication is flatly false. The early republic did not have a federal immigration policy, but as immigration started rising well after the end of the 1792-1815 world war between Britain and France, the state governments did inspect immigrants alighting from sailing and then steam ships, with a view to excluding those with communicable diseases or unable to support themselves economically and thus likely to become "a public charge." For more information on this, see Vincent Cannato's 2010 book American Passage: The History of Ellis Island.

In the 1880s the federal government took over the task of screening immigrants, building the Ellis Island inspection station which opened in 1892 within easy sight of the Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island processed millions between 1892 and 1914, when the outbreak of World War I pretty much cut off overseas immigration, and again from 1919 to 1924, when a sharply restrictive immigration act was passed, barring virtually all immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.

The Ellis Island regime was not, however, the kind of open immigration system Jim Acosta and an increasing number of liberals and Democrats seem to favor. For one thing, the most tired and poor seldom made it to the United States, because they lacked the money or the heartiness to afford or weather even steerage passage on a trans-Atlantic steamship. More importantly, the government excluded those deemed (at their Ellis Island inspection or elsewhere) suffering from communicable diseases, those deemed to be insane or "loathsome" and those "likely to become a public charge." (Here's a sample of exclusions for such reasons.)

Thus paupers were not allowed, or elderly people with no assets or relatives; there was even a political test, for "anarchists," which is not so surprising considering that in the 1890-1901 period anarchist terrorists murdered the president of France, the empress of Austria, and the president of the United States.

My understanding is that the overwhelming majority of would-be immigrants at the Ellis Island and other entry stations were approved. But I suspect it's likely that many people who knew they would not be approved or suspected they well might not be, simply didn't make the journey. They would have been deterred from coming by America's non-open-immigration policy, as many Central Americans today seem to have been deterred from crossing the southern U.S. border because of the way that the Trump administration is enforcing existing statutes. (The steamship companies, if they had the responsibility to ship back rejected applicants, would have screened for the likelihood of rejection, just as airlines today won't let you board an international flight if you don't have the passport or visa necessary for entry at the destination.)

The words of Emma Lazarus's poem slough over these realities. Stephen Miller was right when he said that immigration to the U.S. has risen and fallen (see my 2013 book Shaping Our Nation for more detail), just as he was right when he said that the Lazarus poem was not government policy or federal law.

And Jim Acosta was wrong to suggest that the United States traditionally had an open immigration policy and that the Cotton-Perdue legislation would limit entry to English-speaking white people from Britain and Australia. There's room for argument about policy here, but let's skip the caricatures and stick to the facts.