Maine is on a road to perdition. A lack of immigrants of color for Maine means demographic and economic decline.

“Immigration conversations” are needed for America’s whitest and most elderly state, which is decreasing in population. Thoughtful Maine public policy experts, like former state Attorney General James Tierney and economist Charles Lawton, have long warned us about the business need for more immigrants to head off a population decline that is a recipe for economic ruin.

Speaking in November at Bates College, Tierney detailed this imminent state crisis. He articulated the inconvenient truth that Maine’s survival means it must embrace racial changes in attitudes and policies about immigration. This goes to the heart of President Obama’s immigration executive order. His action is an intended push for congressional comprehensive integration of this nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Celebrating the Rev. Martin Luther King holiday, on Jan. 19, let us be mindful of a national crisis inflicted by a generation of racial anti-Mexican “illegal alien” hostility. In cities like Portland, that national antagonism has created false perceptions about legal immigration. It clarifies why many Mainers are troubled over public assistance for primarily legal African refugees and asylum seekers.

Social insecurities about race have historically threatened America’s strength as a nation of immigrants. Past Maine immigrants of French, Irish, Italian, Catholic or Jewish background were also once seen as racial intruders with alien cultures. Like today’s mostly Mexican undocumented immigrants, they were at the heart of a changing economy and collapsing federal immigration system. They, too, were accused of taking jobs away from Americans and exploiting welfare programs.

Immigration fears can bring out the worst in America, as when the Ku Klux Klan poisoned Maine’s cultural climate almost a century ago. Just as they did back then, thoughtful civic and faith-based leaders will be needed to provide moral clarity. The week before the Rev. King’s birthday, Tierney will visit Portland to kick off a series of World Affairs Council of Maine conversations on immigration. On Jan. 14, a First Parish of Portland panel of local leaders will talk through this demographic change facing Maine’s largest city.

The purpose behind First Parish’s forum is to take faith off the honored shelf of religion and apply it to Maine’s world. A case in point is engaging with changes in cities, like Portland, that drive state, national and global economies. Immigration demography alters urban life.

In that context, the one-hour question-and-answer session will consider public policy and legal insights on the significance of immigration. Beyond controversies about public assistance, for instance, is the need to discuss business relevance in how immigrant human capital buttresses economic growth.

The forum will elaborate on the daunting concerns that Tierney will lay out that week. It will focus on the public and economic imperative to integrate Portland’s new arrivals. Our state is once again confronting a needed paradigm shift involving U.S. structural governmental and economic changes. Failure to accept today’s truth of Portland immigrants is not sustainable. A declining Maine population that ignores its need for immigrants of color is akin to whistling past the graveyard.

Recent national cure-alls like the “self-deportation” of undocumented immigrants – millions with American-born children and spouses – defy common sense. That panacea is another reminder that Maine’s immigration dilemma is shaped by national inflammatory language. Federal lingo, like “aliens” and “illegality,” muddles public thinking in Maine about the documentation process for immigrants.

Pontificating by pundits about “Mexicans jumping the border” confounds a Maine reality of often urban African immigrants. Such uncertainty reflects a national racial panic over what Univision calls the “New American Reality.” One of every four American babies born each year, for example, will be Latino, and Latinos account for 95 percent of all teenage growth through 2020. This national nervousness gets generalized and morphed into non-Latino issues at the local level.

Our challenge, in the long run, is to foster documentation of immigrants and incorporate them as essential elements of economic growth. Each day we fail to do this is a day’s opportunity lost. So, the key in needed conversations, like the First Parish forum in downtown Portland at 6 p.m. Jan. 14, will be how we welcome Tierney’s clarion call on racial immigration. To do otherwise will mean an imperiled Maine future.

— Special to the Press Herald