A little-known Democratic congressman from Brooklyn, Schumer had brokered the key compromise on agricultural workers that revived a bill pronounced dead and led to the passage of the first major immigration overhaul in decades.
Yet the sweeping act, which paired amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants here with a crackdown on employer hiring, failed in its promise to stem the tide of undocumented workers.
That seminal experience might prove key for Schumer, now New York's senior U.S. senator, as he opens a new chapter in the saga of new "comprehensive immigration reform" with a hearing set for Thursday.
Schumer on Friday described the weakness in the 1986 act, one he said could be applied to more recent comprehensive reform bills that have failed to pass: "No one believed it was tough enough on illegal immigration, and it didn't give enough flexibility on future legal immigration."
Schumer's view of immigration has new importance now that he has taken over as chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).
Yet he also could find in the upcoming immigration fight that he might have something to prove about his legislative skills to those for and against comprehensive reform.
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which backs stricter curbs on immigration, said it was a good thing that "the push for amnesty is now in less capable hands."
Schumer said Friday he took the subcommittee post after others turned it down.
But once he did, he said, he told the White House to put immigration on the agenda this year, despite widespread skepticism it can make headway on a crowded calendar, "because it's doable in a very positive way."
He said Kennedy laid the groundwork, but failed because "the mood got a little sour," especially with the House GOP.
Times have now changed, Schumer said, and passing a bill is possible by separating illegal from legal immigrants with what he calls the linchpin: a biometric Social Security card that includes digital records of personal characteristics.
Schumer brings a very different political reputation to the battle than Kennedy's, one that is less liberal and ideological, and more political.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kennedy's partner on immigration, once reportedly complained that Schumer was trying to scuttle their bill to protect Democrats politically, so a Schumer-McCain bill seems unlikely. When asked about Schumer on Friday, a McCain aide said it's up to President Barack Obama to provide leadership.
"On this issue, like many others, he may well put on political lenses," said Rick Swartz, who as National Immigration Forum director dealt with Schumer in the 1980s.
In many ways, Schumer now faces the same issues as in 1986, he said, and his approach now could mirror what he did then.
Schumer brokered the deal that saved that bill by negotiating with two California House Democrats, Leon Panetta, who spoke for growers (and by chance was Schumer's D.C. housemate), and Howard Berman, who spoke for farmworkers, contemporary accounts say.
The logjam was plain: Growers wanted temporary workers, but farmworkers opposed a guest-worker program because of feared exploitation. After months, Schumer found a compromise: temporary resident status for foreign workers, giving growers labor and farmworkers protection.
"Every interest group, left, right and center, for one specific reason or another opposes the bill," Schumer said in 1986. "The question is, in a complicated world can Congress rise above those specific interests?"
Now he faces another thicket of interest groups. Labor, which has unified, opposes a guest-worker program that business wants. The ACLU attacks the biometric card as a privacy breach. Some want open borders, others want a crackdown on illegal workers.
But Schumer made it clear he has his eye on the middle class he is wooing to his party.
"My basic premise is that I am what I think the American people are," he said. "They are pro-legal immigration but anti-illegal immigration."