Luis Magaña has been an advocate of the rights of immigrant farm workers for his entire adult life.

The son and grandson of migrants from the Mexican state of Michoacán who came to California as guest workers in 1917 and 1943, Mr. Magaña is a longtime friend. He has taken on every cause, from improving dismal working conditions in the sprawling farms of the San Joaquin Valley to extracting past-due compensation for aging migrants from the Mexican government.
He has a better grasp than most people of the most ardent wish of millions of immigrants working “without papers” across the American economy.
Last week I asked Mr. Magaña, who came to the United States as a child, about the renewed enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for a reform of the nation’s immigration laws. What did migrants think, I asked, about the sudden good luck that might give them a shot at American citizenship?
His simple, straightforward response contrasts with the complex set of finely balanced, interlocking provisions in the proposal for immigration reform unveiled on Tuesday by a group of eight Republican and Democratic senators. What the migrants want most, he told me, “is to fix their papers,” gaining an opportunity to move freely and work legally in the United States.

He cautioned against overreaching that could end up ruining the hopes for legislation. “For migrants it’s like being in the desert asking for a glass of water,” he said, “and suddenly here comes your savior and offers you all sorts of beverages.”
Mr. Magaña remembers the last, botched attempt at immigration reform.
In 2007, a plan championed by both the Republican president, George W. Bush, and the Democratic senator Ted Kennedy was sunk, in part, by Democrats who opposed creating a new visa for temporary guest-workers who would not have a shot at citizenship. The provision amounted to “a shameful repudiation of American tradition that will encourage exploitation,” said an editorial in The New York Times. If the deal couldn’t be improved, “it should be rejected as worse than a bad status quo.”
A couple of weeks later, an unusual coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans — not all of whom were concerned about the immigration rights of guest workers — passed an amendment ending the guest-worker program after five years. At a stroke, businesses’ interest in immigration reform evaporated. The effort was dead. Most illegal immigrants and guest workers would probably welcome the opportunity to become American citizens, eventually. It would open access to government programs like Medicaid. Most important, it would offer protection in case the good will toward immigrants in Congress these days were ever to sour.
But to the paperless immigrants of the San Joaquin Valley — harvesting asparagus or lettuce; picking cherries or grapes — the insistence on a path to citizenship for a few hundred thousand guest workers six years ago ended up blocking the achievement of their most important goal. The demand for perfection became the enemy of the good.
“Economic migrants don’t come to become American,” said Mr. Magaña, who became a United States citizen though his father and grandfather did not. “They don’t care about that, especially when they just arrived.”
Could the same thing happen again? Perhaps.
True, reform currently has the wind in its sails. Republicans are tired of losing Hispanic voters. The fear that immigrants will take jobs from native-born Americans has diminished as net illegal immigration has fallen to zero and arrests at the border have hit 40-year lows. And with stronger economic growth in Mexico even as the increase in its labor supply slows, says Douglas Massey, an expert on immigration at Princeton, “the boom in Mexican immigration is over no matter what the U.S. does.”
Still, immigration reform remains vulnerable. Many Americans are ambivalent about granting citizenship to what they see as a vast, poor, brown, Spanish-speaking population with presumably divided loyalties. As the complex legislation hatched in the Senate is exposed to the klieg lights of public debate, lots of people are likely to flinch at the details.
Labor unions have come a long way in the last six years. Still, many remain skeptical about tens of thousands of cheap new guest laborers competing for jobs.
Some immigrant advocacy groups don’t much like a provision to cull family-related visas.
Conservatives remain very uncomfortable with granting residence and citizenship to “lawbreakers” who might consume lots of public services and vote for Democrats once they are allowed to become citizens years down the road. Many insist that America must “secure the border” before anything else can happen — an implausible goal that could stop the process in its tracks.
Yet as Americans consider the broad attempt at changing the nation’s immigration laws, it is important to weigh any discomfort at specific provisions against the alternative of no reform at all.
In a world without reform, the border would not be any more secure, American workers would get no more protection from cheap immigrant labor and immigrants would certainly get no better shot at legal status and eventual citizenship. It is a world of nods and winks that legitimizes an illegal status quo.
In 1997, onion growers from Vidalia, Ga., withdrew their applications for temporary farmworker visas because they would have had to pay workers at least the prevailing wage of 80 cents a bag. When agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service raided Vidalia’s onion fields the following year, not surprisingly they arrested a bunch of immigrants working illegally instead.
Rather than give the I.N.S. a pat on the back, the Georgia senator Paul Coverdell, a Republican, wrote a letter complaining about its “indiscriminate and inappropriate use of extreme enforcement tactics” against “honest farmers who are simply trying to get their products from the field to the marketplace.” The I.N.S. promised no more surprise inspections. And 15 years later about half of the immigrant workers hired on American farms are still working there illegally.
By immigrants’ reckoning, the effort that failed in 2007 was not a bad shot. In some respects, its temporary guest worker program with no citizenship rights made it even better.
“The temporariness is a good thing, not a bad thing,” wrote Dani Rodrik, an expert in development economics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, in a blog post in 2007. “It allows others to take advantage of the same opportunity, and it enables home countries to benefit from the newly acquired skills and resources of the returnees. It also alleviates some of the social problems caused by long absences of parents from home.”
Indeed, the program would have helped both the United States and the developing world. “Even a minor temporary guest worker program would generate greater benefits to the developing nations than all of the Doha trade agenda taken in its entirety,” Mr. Rodrik wrote, referring to long-stalled negotiations at the World Trade Organization intended to open up markets for goods from the poorest countries.
Today, reforming immigration law could achieve worthy objectives. Just granting the protection of law to 11 million people currently living in fear of the authorities would be a notable victory for the cause of human rights. It would be a pity if it were to be shot down, again, for being imperfect.