Last Friday on the Senate floor, Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) gratefully acknowledged the role Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had played in forging an amendment that Corker was sponsoring with fellow Republican John Hoeven of North Dakota. The amendment was an effort to win Republican support for the immigration reform bill with a massive increase in spending on border security.
Said Corker in a tribute to Schumer, "My last call last night, at 12:33, was with him. And my first call early, early this morning was with him. I thank him for the way he has worked with us to try to work through Republican sensibilities."
Corker went on to describe the two priorities the newly amended bill would meet: "I believe we do have a historic opportunity to deal with the issues of security that many of our citizens across the country care about, but at the same time allow 11 million people to come out of the shadows and work in the light and be a part of this great, great nation in a way that has dignity and respect."
Schumer, who was on the floor to receive Corker's thanks, called the amendment a "turning point" that "gives us the real chance of getting a very significant number of our Republican colleagues."
Then Schumer explained its ultimate significance: "I believe a large bipartisan vote in this body will change the dynamic in the House to make them far more amenable to passing immigration reform."
The tableau must have reminded Schumer, who is touted in this week's issue of Time as "Washington's top dealmaker", of a similar time in 1986. It was then that he brokered a deal that broke a deadlock and led to adoption of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the most ambitious immigration reform bill of the past three decades.
Schumer guided IRCA past a series of obstacles that seemed to have thwarted it. During that convoluted process, he was likened to the fast-talking host of the popular TV game show "Let's Make a Deal".
According to the Houston Chronicle, Schumer "was so determined to forge enough compromises to pass the bill that some lobbyists dubbed him "the Monty Hall of Immigration".
In 1986, as today, there was an ambitious, bipartisan push for immigration reform that would balance the twin goals of amnesty for illegal immigrants and — in order to stop future illegal immigration — punishment for employers who hired illegal immigrants.
Today the third major priority is border security. Hence the Corker-Hoeven plan to double the size of the Border Patrol. Schumer was thrilled at the thought of so many agents guarding the 1,950-mile border.
"They will only be 1,000 feet apart for every minute the clock ticks," he said. "No one — no one —will be able to cross the border with that number of people on the border. It is a virtual human fence."
In 1986, the third major legislative priority was the interests of big agriculture, especially the California growers of fresh fruits and vegetables. Politically mighty and intensely organized behind a powerful lobby, they acknowledged their dependence on illegal immigrant labor and said they would be decimated by the reform unless it was amended to assure them access to a foreign work force.
At the urging of the growers, the Senate in 1985 had passed an amendment sponsored by California's Pete Wilson. It called for 350,000 guest workers for seasonal work in the fields.
But that provision was bitterly opposed by Hispanic organizations and labor unions, who said temporary workers were inevitably subjected to abuse and poor pay. Their most important ally was Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who was adamant in his opposition to the "massive importation of foreign agricultural labor".
Enter Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from Brooklyn. He began talks with two Democratic colleagues from California: Leon Panetta, an advocate of the growers, and Howard Berman, an advocate of labor.
The three men agreed on a plan that would give each side what it most wanted.
For the growers, the plan would guarantee a large, legal workforce. It would offer legal status to anyone who had already worked the fields for a certain number of days. Moreover, if the newly legalized workers left the fields to seek work elsewhere, the plan would bring in foreign replacement workers, who would also be offered a path to citizenship.
For the labor advocates, the plan promised the Holy Grail of immigration — a path to citizenship that would take them out of the shadows and offer them a way out of the grueling, low-paying, and seasonal work in the fields.
Schumer, Panetta, and Berman touted the plan as an historic compromise. But it also drew sharp criticism. Said a Washington Post editorial: "It looks like a cave-in to us. By giving agricultural lobbyists all they could possibly have dreamed of and by offering incredibly generous benefits to illegal agricultural workers, the congressmen have won the support of these groups."
Rodino understood such concerns. But he said the Schumer plan, while "somewhat unpalatable, was the only political reality I could see" for the bill to survive the Judiciary Committee and make it to the House floor.
Others said the need for amnesty and employer sanctions was so great that it made the Schumer plan worthwhile. Said a New York Times editorial: "The compromise is flawed, yet anyone who understands the need for immigration reform will support it. It may be the only way."
In late September, A Republican revolt against the bill's generous terms seemed to kill it. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif) led a procedural move to prevent it from being brought to the House floor.
Lungren condemned the plan — which would layer the agricultural amnesty on top of a general amnesty for illegal immigrants in the country since 1982 — as "a super, super amnesty". Then he asked: "Do you think 60 days in this country is sufficient reason to grant citizenship?"
After the bill's apparent defeat, Schumer offered a grim assessment. "The history of immigration (legislation) shows it's very easy to block it," he said. "This was the last chance, in my opinion, for humane, real, and decent immigration reform."
But the bill was not dead after all. For two principal reasons.
The first reason, laid out in a New York Times editorial, began with the observation that only 15 percent of illegal immigrants worked in agriculture. "Thus, the Schumer provision is arguably a tolerable price for controlling the other 85 percent," the Times said.
The second reason was explained by Schumer himself. He said he and others decided not to let the bill simply die.
Said Schumer: "We began meeting among ourselves and said, 'Look, we've done so much work; we've got to work something out.'''
Schumer and Lungren did work something out, bringing the bill to the House, where it passed by a vote of 230-166. Among the Democrats, 168 voted for the bill and 61 voted against. Among the Republican, 62 voted for the bill and 105 voted against.
The vote delighted Attorney General Edwin Meese. "Action by the House to bring this badly needed legislation back from the dead is a remarkable accomplishment," said Meese.
One of Schumer's most powerful allies may have been immigration fatigue in Congress, which had been arguing over various reform bills since the beginning of the decade. Said Lungren, "After six years, some people were just exhausted."
After that climactic house vote, the bill was sent to conference committee, where it was quickly adopted and made ready for President Reagan's signature.
But just as today some dissenters from the border surge amendment protest its expense, back then some continued to say it was too much.
They were so insistent and so effective in demanding special treatment under the legislation that Representative John Bryant, a Texas Democrat, declared at one point, "The question today is: How much we are going to do for California growers?"
Schumer, the determined and resourceful dealmaker, was willing to do what it took to forge a bill. Rep Dan Glickman, (D-Kan.) said he had been "the catalyst". Rodino hailed him for "a remarkable job".
When President Reagan signed IRCA into law in November 1986, he expressed the sentiment that the employer sanctions justified the controversial concessions. Said Reagan, "The employer sanctions program is the keystone and major element. It will remove the incentive for illegal immigration by eliminating the job opportunities which draw illegal aliens here."
He then predicted that the bill would impose order and stability on the chaos of illegal immigration:
The act I am signing today is the product of one of the longest and most difficult legislative undertakings of recent memory. It has truly been a bipartisan effort, with this administration and the allies of immigration reform in the Congress, of both parties, working together to accomplish these critically important reforms. Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship.