Call Immigration Chuck Schumer's Legacy-Defining Issue

Chuck Schumer May Find Immigration Reform Defines His Legacy

May 15, 2013, 2:43 PM

May 05, 2013— -- Chuck Schumer set his alarm clock early each morning to fly back to Washington D.C. from New York in late 1986. At the Capitol, he was immersed in intense negotiations over a major immigration reform bill. In New York, his wife was nine months pregnant.

For three weeks straight, he made this daily roundtrip before it began to wear on the then 35-year-old Democratic congressman from Brooklyn.

"I said to one of my colleagues who was working on the bill, 'I'm just dying here. I don't know how I am going to make it,'" Schumer recalled. "He told me, 'When you go home this weekend, take your wife and walk until she can't walk anymore.'"

So the day after he flew home, he and his wife, Iris, walked from their house in Brooklyn across the Brooklyn Bridge all the way up to 96th Street in the northern part of Manhattan. That was about 10 miles.

"She went into labor the next morning," Schumer said.

This is who Schumer is in all things. He is a pragmatist. And depending on who you ask, that could be for better or worse.

It's the approach he took toward a major immigration-reform bill in October of 1986. It's a big reason why President Ronald Reagan was able to sign it into law that November.

Three decades later, Schumer finds himself in a similar position. As the current chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, he is leading the bipartisan group of eight senators trying to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

The issue is one of President Barack Obama's top second-term priorities. It represents a major step toward resolving what has become the defining civil rights issue for Latinos in America.

For Schumer, success could help define his legacy as one of the most influential dealmakers in Congress. Although one thing's for sure, he shouldn't expect everyone, and that includes Latinos, to like him for it.

Making a Deal

For some years now, Schumer has had a reputation as a bare-knuckle partisan. The New York senator led the Senate Democrats' campaign committee in the 2006 and 2008 elections, successfully guiding his party's effort to win back control of the Senate. For the past two years, he has also led an aggressive messaging operation for Senate Democrats that has consistently slammed Republicans as extremists.

And the media has had a front row seat to all of it. As Bob Dole famously said, the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a camera.

But as leader of the so-called "Gang of Eight," Schumer has generally shied away from (most of) those traits. Instead, he has largely earned praise from both sides of the aisle for his efforts to find common ground between Republicans and Democrats.

"I've been around the legislative process enough to know when someone wants a deal and someone wants an issue, and I believe he wants to solve the problem," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told Politico in February.

This bipartisan approach has its roots in the 1986 reforms Schumer helped broker.

WATCH: The 1986 Immigration Reform Explained

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was designed to do one thing: stop future waves of illegal immigration. When it passed, nearly three million undocumented immigrants were granted amnesty. In exchange, it became illegal for employers to hire immigrant workers who were in the country without authorization. Without Schumer -- a man who was raised in a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrant families -- the bill may well have died on the vine.

That's because even though the Senate had already approved the measure, the House was deadlocked as it tried to negotiate a deal for one of the sectors most dependent on immigrant labor: agriculture.

Since the bill offered a path to citizenship for many people living illegally in the U.S., growers were concerned that their source of labor, once legalized, would pack up and look for better work. The concern was legitimate: Nearly a third of people who eventually benefited from the amnesty were farm workers, and agricultural work was one of the hardest, lowest-paying jobs around. Growers wanted a guest-worker program that would guarantee them a workforce.

The two main negotiators on the agriculture component in the House were both Democrats from California. Leon Panetta spoke for the growers. He hailed from a district that included the Central Valley, one of the country's most productive agricultural regions. On the other side of the table was Los Angeles-based Rep. Howard Berman, who served as a stand-in for union farmworkers.

Schumer served with Berman on the House judiciary committee, where the bill was being blocked, which is how he became involved. He knew Panetta personally as well as professionally. At the time, they both shared a house in D.C. with two other legislators, a living arrangement the The New York Times described as a nerdy, middle-aged fraternity.

Coming from Brooklyn, Schumer wasn't an expert on agriculture, but he quickly digested the outlines of the negotiations, according to Berman.

"Chuck is very bright. He's a very quick study, so he understood it," said Berman, who lost his reelection bid last fall. "Basically, it was me and my folks with Leon and Leon's folks, with Chuck -- if we were stuck at an impasse -- throwing out some ideas."

Schumer's ties to New York City proved helpful, too. Unions and Latino-rights organizations, whose approval would be vital to any deal, considered him an ally.

"He wasn't coming from a rural state dominated by agricultural interests...From our standpoint, he was well positioned," said Charles Kamasaki, the former executive vice president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy organization in the U.S. and one of the negotiators concerned with Latino rights at the time.

According to Panetta, Schumer also displayed formidable stamina, as evidenced by his frequent trips back to New York, and the ability to bring people together.

"Chuck was a great facilitator in trying to make it happen. It's an example of how you're supposed to get legislation put together in the Congress," said Panetta, who later went on to serve as CIA director and defense secretary. "It's exactly the opposite of what goes on on the Hill these days."

After months of deal-making, the two sides reached an accord on October 17, 1986. The immigration bill would offer a special path to citizenship for agricultural workers, but also provide a guest-worker program meant to guarantee a future supply of farm labor.

Schumer was among many players who made the agreement possible, but he also acknowledged that the country was entering new and unknown territory.

"The bill is a gamble, a riverboat gamble," he told The New York Times. "There is no guarantee that employer sanctions will work or that amnesty will work. We are headed into uncharted waters."

Getting the Band Back Together

Sprawled out on a brown leather couch in his hideaway office, located in a hallway just steps from the Senate floor, Schumer doesn't look like a man that's, once again, carrying the weight of intense negotiations involving powerhouse groups like the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

It's March 20, and at this point, talks have grown tense between big business and labor unions over how to craft visa programs to bring in low-skilled immigrant workers. Rumors have also begun circulating that the disagreement could imperil the bipartisan legislation. That conflict is amplified by the fact that the Senate group is days away from blowing past its late March deadline to submit a final bill.

"There's all kinds of fights, but I will say this. This group … everyone wants to come to the middle," Schumer said. "And I think my Republican colleagues realize I'm not playing political games. I want to pass a bill. And I believe the same of them."

That said, Schumer remains concerned about the original sin of the '86 bill, which was the ineffectiveness of enforcement measures. The bill was intended to stop illegal immigration, but in fact, the rate of unauthorized immigration to the U.S. surged from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s.

In 1986, there were approximately three million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Today, there are roughly 11 million. The failures of '86 have become a rallying cry for Republicans who oppose immigration reform.

Although the last crack at immigration reform in 2007 was backed by President George W. Bush, a revolt against the bill by conservative immigration hawks was a main reason the deal collapsed. Schumer wants to avoid that problem in the event the bill comes to the floor in the Senate this year by ensuring there is at least enough Republican support to avoid a filibuster.

That's a big reason why the framework released by the "Gang of Eight" included a plethora of new crackdowns on illegal immigration, including beefed-up border security operations, a system to verify the work eligibility of employees and a way to track when immigrants with temporary visas enter and leave the U.S. It also makes a pathway to citizenship contingent on whether a series of border security metrics is met.

"If I were writing my own perfect bill, I wouldn't do much more on the border," Schumer said. "If you're going to get bipartisan support and get a bill done, you're going to have to do something on the border. And to me, especially if you do it in a smart way -- and I think our bill does it in a smart way -- as part of a bill to get comprehensive reform, it's worth it even if I don't fully agree."

Panetta said that type of attitude is typical of Schumer's approach to legislating.

"He has the ability to understand both sides of the issue," he said. "If you're going to be a deal maker, you damn well better understand what motivates both sides in terms of their interests."

Not that everyone on Capitol Hill is pleased with Schumer's work. A number of Republicans and conservatives insist that he and his staff may sneak loopholes into the final language of the bill to get around enforcement.

Then there are the immigrant activists who recently asked Schumer to give back campaign contributions he received from lobbyists representing for-profit immigration detention centers.

And just over a month ago, some two dozen immigrant activists occupied his office on Capitol Hill in frustration at the pace of the current legislation.

"[Schumer] is an incredibly influential leader in Washington, D.C. He hasn't used his influence to stand up for immigrant families to the extent that he should," said Gustavo Andrade, one of those arrested at Schumer's office and the organizing director of the Maryland-based group CASA in Action, which lobbies in support of Latinos and immigrants.

Andrade and other immigration advocates are responding to the state of immigration and deportation in this country. Overall, immigration from Mexico to the U.S. has fallen to net zero. Apprehensions at the border have also fallen, indicating a significant ebb in unauthorized immigration. Meanwhile, deportations have risen to record highs, resulting in the separation of hundreds of thousands of families.

Schumer says that he understands the concern over deportations, but he doesn't see eye-to-eye with groups who have become "impatient and who don't have the same view of compromise." That may well be why, even if he is not liked by many of the people he says he wants to help, and even if half the GOP wants to pick him apart, he is still the most suited to make immigration reform happen.

Schumer, after all, for better or worse, is a pragmatist. And once again, he is in a position of power to work with the people who can make reform a reality.

"That's how politics is," he said. "You can't please everybody -- the only way to please everybody is to paralyze yourself. I want to get something done."

The bottom line for him personally is to secure a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants already residing in the country. On the other hand, he also acknowledges that a significant portion of his legacy in Congress could hinge on its success or failure.

But then he's known that since he made the decision to join the immigration committee in 2009, when he filled the vacancy left by the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). Kennedy was a personal hero of Schumer's, and Schumer wanted to finish the work Kennedy had started two years earlier, when he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) tried and failed to pass an immigration reform bill.

"It's sort of a solemn trust from him to get this done in the right way," Schumer said.

A trust that could reshape this country, as well as Chuck Schumer.

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