Recent events at the U.S.-Mexico border and ongoing deliberations over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program have put in stark light the perils of belonging to a politicized group. Even immigrants who have risked their life in defense of their adopted country have found that service is no protection in our nativist climate.
This year, Army veteran Miguel Perez Jr., who enlisted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, was deported because of substance abuse issues connected to his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder — a direct result of his military service. Other veterans with precarious immigration statuses face similar predicaments, caught between President Trump and his nativist platform and Democrats who wish to widen immigrant rights and protect members of vulnerable groups such as Perez. The midterm elections are likely to determine their fate.
In the late 19th century, a class of Union veterans faced similar political struggles. Public concern grew as reports surfaced that thousands of Union veterans were emigrating out of the United States but keeping their military pensions. Many felt as if these veterans had forfeited their right to American aid by leaving the United States. This belief turned these veterans into a political football — much like immigrants today.
Congress responded to the growing outrage by ending pension payments abroad. The Democratic majority played to its base by attacking a group whose votes it never had and, therefore, could not lose. Veterans attempted to resist, protesting in the press that their right to a pension should not be limited by their country of residence. But they learned that when it comes to legislation on intensely polarized issues, who holds the reins of power matters more than activism.
In 1892, a Union veteran named Alexander Binder found himself suddenly at risk of losing access to a pension, simply because he lived outside the United States. Nowhere in the original Pension Act of 1862 did it state that Union veterans needed to stay in America to receive the benefits of their service. But the political climate had changed: Immigration had become a hot-button issue. Also, as more Union veterans became eligible for a pension, costs had exploded. So veterans living abroad became a convenient political target.
The actual number of veteran pensioners living abroad was small, never exceeding 5,000, and consisted of a mix of expats moving abroad and foreigners leaving to return home. But that didn’t stop Americans from forming wildly skewed perceptions that this population was much larger and generally nefarious. An article from the late 1880s warned readers that “in Germany alone there are … between 3,000 and 4,000 pensioners.” Another, responding to reports from Ireland that several hundred Irishmen were receiving American pensions, stated that these pensioners were likely “big-bounty men,” insinuating that they had enlisted for the love of money, not for the love of country. The author went on to add that pensioners living in Canada probably moved outside the United States to “escape debts or crime.”
Though factually flawed, these reports fueled the growing hysteria. The fear generated by veterans abroad soon spurred legislation. In 1892, Rep. Walter C. Newberry (D-Ill.) introduced a bill that would stop pension payments to “any person who is not a citizen and a bona fide resident of the United States.” To push his bill, Newberry declared that 15,000 pensioners were living abroad and that they were not heroes, merely mercenaries. Why, then, should the state take care of them?
Newberry’s bill became law as part of the 1893 Pension Appropriation Act. With the passage of the act, pensions to veterans living abroad ceased. Democrats controlled Congress, so they had little to lose by targeting Union veterans, a largely Republican voting bloc.
But veterans, many of whom were directly affected by this legislation, organized in opposition. Binder, for example, was a resident of Germany when he wrote the National Tribune to dismiss Newberry’s declaration as pure fiction. Whereas Newberry claimed that several thousand pensioners were living in Wurttemberg, Germany, alone, Binder found that the most recent official record listed only 62. And rather than the 15,000 total foreign pensioners that Newberry claimed, Binder found only 2,646 on the official record. In other words, this was a harsh solution to an imagined problem.
Other veterans also took issue with Newberry’s agenda. Another article in the Tribune addressed the idea that foreign mercenaries were brought to the North during the Civil War and were paid big bounties to put down the rebellion, only to return home and live off American pensions. “Even had this been true,” the author stated, “it would have been no excuse for refusing them pensions. The pensions were as much a part of the contract as any other item.” Veterans made their voices heard, but had the power to do little else.
In the end, however, the opposition got what they wanted — but not because of this activism. Congress repealed Newberry’s bill in 1895, but its repeal had more to do with shifting political power than persuasive arguments of angry veterans. The 54th Congress, convened in 1895, saw both chambers flip, becoming solidly Republican, and Republicans, who depended on veterans’ votes, secured the repeal.
For veterans, of course, a win was a win. After 1895, pensions for veterans living outside the United States never again faced serious statutory threat.
At the heart of the pension issue of the late 19th century and the immigration issue of today is the question of what it means to be an American: Who has rights and benefits as citizens? To change legislation regarding who does or does not deserve the privileges that come with being an American, sometimes the only recourse is to change who is making the legislation.