LEWISTON — “We need immigrant families,” James Tierney said, a concept he said was rooted in “cold, hard numbers.”
Tierney, a former Maine attorney general and majority leader for the state House of Representatives, addressed a crowd at Bates College on Monday evening on “Immigrants and Maine’s Economic Future.”
“Maine is old — very old,” Tierney said. “Maine lacks enough people of child-bearing age to be able to birth our way out of our aging demographics.”
According to his figures, Maine is also the whitest state — 96 percent to an average 64 percent for the rest of the country.
As diverse as these topics may seem, Tierney said he believes they are inextricably linked as Maine has steadily descended from the 12th oldest state in 1980 to the oldest today. He said new workers must arrive to replace the elderly and, like it or not, they probably won’t look like us.
“This isn’t about anyone doing anything wrong,” Tierney said. “It’s not about either political party.” Nor, Tierney said, was it about a particular social program.
With the median age of Mainers at 43.9 and only 12,000 babies born in 2013, Tierney said that in real numbers since 2002, “Maine has 22,000 fewer students in K-12, if you figure 22 kids a classroom, that’s 1,000 fewer classrooms.”
He said also since 2002, Lewiston and Auburn schools have defied statewide trends and increased enrollment by 10 percent because of immigration. The rest of Androscoggin County, Tierney said, has dropped 15 percent.
With factors such as stubbornness, denial and the fear of the “other,” Tierney said Mainers need to get over these hurdles, even advising young people to spend some time away in more diverse parts of the country.
Tierney cited a yet-to-be released study by a University of Maine professor in which students from the predominantly white school were given identical, hypothetical details about an illegal immigrant.
The only difference between the two was one was named Alex Stevenson from Sweden and the other Alex Garcia from Mexico.
While he didn’t want to divulge details of the study before its release, he told the crowd that their intuition was correct. With or without a job, Garcia was seen as a liability while Stevenson was just a good guy who probably played hockey.
Describing the arrival of Francos to the Lewiston area, Tierney spoke of droves arriving not speaking English and without a passport — by modern standards, illegal aliens.
He spoke of harsh work conditions, meager pay and the growing presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Maine who wanted to drive these non-English speakers with their strange religion back from where they came.
He said there were 800 residents in Brunswick when 7,000 people packed themselves into the Brunswick town hall to hear a Klan speech.
“Bombs were set off here in Lewiston by the Klan and the rector of the Trinity Episcopal Church preached Klan poison from the pulpit,” Tierney said.
As for the lasting legacy of the Klan’s hate, Tierney said in two to three years, the Klan had vanished as the French became just another neighbor.
On the national level, Tierney said, standing up to the Klan cost Gov. Baxter his run for the U.S. Senate.
Tierney left the crowd at the Muskie Archives with a quote from Edmund Muskie’s 1932 valedictorian speech: “The road to eventual world peace does not lie in a treaty between governments. Treaties will not remove the inherent distrust for each other that exists between nations. If we are to treat our fellow man with kindness and respect, recognize the rights of our neighbors — in short, apply the golden rule — we will be on the road to world peace.”