Call Immigration Chuck Schumer's Legacy-Defining Issue

Chuck Schumer May Find Immigration Reform Defines His Legacy

ByABC News
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.