07/16/2014 05:57 pm ET Updated Sep 14, 2014

Immigration: 32 Years Later

In 1982 The City Club of San Diego held a national conference on immigration. As conferences go this became hugely significant.

The genesis of the conference began at the Democratic National Convention in New York in 1980, where I had gone as a delegate for Ted Kennedy.

With the California and Colorado's delegations seated beside one another on the floor of Madison Square Garden, I introduced myself to Dick Lamm, the Centennial State's governor, and said if he ever felt the need to give a speech away from Colorado, The City Club would be honored to provide a platform.

The invitation was probably out of mind, when one day I received a call from the governor's office in Denver, not from an aide but the governor himself, and he said he wanted to address the problem of immigration; that he felt it was a growing national issue, and he wanted to be heard on the matter. I said, in effect, given your strong feelings, perhaps we should see if a conference could be put together here in San Diego under the auspices of The City Club. He agreed.

I was then invited by Governor Lamm to a meeting over lunch in the governor's mansion in Denver. I in turn invited Barry McComic, a San Diego business and civic leader and City Club member, to join me; on the appointed day we flew to Denver.

What happened next, in a little less than two hours, was this:

We agreed on holding a national conference on immigration with the governor as keynoter. We agreed to invite two key Congressional leaders, Senator Alan Simpson, Republican of Wyoming; and Congressman Ron Mazzoli, Democrat of Kentucky; along with California State Senator Art Torres, America's leading demographer on immigration from the Ford Foundation, the head of a national immigration group from Washington, D.C., and, by the way, the legendary CBS newsman and icon, Eric Sevareid to serve as moderator.

Done. No, really done. And accomplished in less than two hours. And, if that doesn't amaze you, then you may be clueless as to the challenges such undertakings pose.

I have been responsible for more than two thousand programs presented in the public interest, but none more significant than the conference we held later that year at the Rancho Bernardo Inn; a significance underscored by the fact that from the conference would evolve the 1986 Immigration and Control Act (known as Simpson-Mazzoli), the first major immigration legislation passed by Congress in decades, which became law when signed by President Ronald Reagan, November 6, 1986.

The legislation, said, in part:

"The Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed and signed into law on November 6, 1986. The purpose of this legislation was to amend, revise, and reform/re-assess the status of unauthorized immigrants set forth in the Immigration and Nationality Act. The content of this bill is overwhelming and is divided into many sections such as control of unauthorized immigration, legalization and reform of legal immigration. The focus of this précis will be on the legalization aspect of the bill.

"This bill gave unauthorized aliens the opportunity to apply and gain legal status if they met mandated requirements. The fate or status of all those who applied fell into the hands of "Designated Entities" and finally the U.S. Attorney General. Applicants had to prove that they lived and maintained a continuous physical presence in the U.S. since January 1st, 1982, possess a clean criminal record, and provide proof of registration within the Selective Service.

Of the legislation, the New York Times wrote an editorial entitled, "Not Nativist, Not Racist, Not Mean":

As a general proposition, the Simpson-Mazzoli bill is at once tough, fair and humane... The United States cannot conceivably let in all the worldwide millions who want in. That means controlling our own borders and that in turn, means something called employer sanctions. Federal law must forbid hiring illegal immigrants and also provide employers with a way to identify who they are. The Simpson-Mazzoli bill would do both. Without being specific, it calls for the gradual development of a limited, reasonable process of identification.

I write this to say, I did not come to the issue of immigration yesterday, but also to say pointedly to those who may think otherwise, this is an extraordinarily complicated issue, not given to simple answers; because if it were simple it would have been resolved a long time back - as clearly Senator Simpson, Congressman Mazzoli, and Governor Lamm had intended.

Immigration will not be resolved by slogans. It will not be resolved by demonstrations. It will not be resolved by sheer, mean, dishonest, gutless or accusatory politics. Nor will it be resolved by beating up on President Obama. Yes, he's president, but no, he's not God. And there are real limits to what a president can do, especially when the party opposite has made it his primary purpose to destroy his presidency (see U.S. Senate Republican Leader Senator McConnell's remarks to the Heritage Foundation).

Nor will it be resolved by placing more and more Border Patrol along the 1,933 miles from San Diego to Brownsville, as one of our former U.S. Attorney here irresponsibly and stupidly suggested; if it were possible to place one officer every yard along the border, it would take 19,330 officers working three eight-hour shifts to accomplish that objective.

If you think that's possible, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

Finally, if you value my views and still believe there is a simple solution to our immigration problems, then you should probably be reading the views of others, most likely in right-wing publications, because they always have simple solutions to complicated problems, but not mine, because nothing about immigration is easy - nothing!

I dislike being uncharitable, and I have a demonstrated history of tolerance for other people's points of view - as in 80 collective years running three major public forums, public forums that have heard everyone from Gloria Steinem to Newt Gingrich, from Ted Kennedy to Oliver North, from Jerry Falwell to George McGovern - but there is a limit to my tolerance, and the immigration issue and those who think its solution simple, have tested my patience - and been found wanting.

Sorry, but that's the way it is.