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Britain's election underscores growing debate over immigration

WOKING, England—In an otherwise lackluster British election campaign that ends Thursday with a probable victory by Prime Minister Tony Blair, immigration became one of the burning issues.

Take the case of Humphrey Malins, who as a lawyer founded a national charity giving free legal advice to immigrants. As the Conservative Party candidate to become immigration minister, Malins was eager to have his many South Asian-born constituents know about the charity, and he sent out Urdu-language leaflets highlighting it.

But as the Times of London newspaper discovered, his mailings to white neighborhoods in this bedroom community southwest of London omitted that part of his biography, even as the pamphlets promised to "set an annual limit on the number of people who can settle in Britain."

"My local literature is intended to be very local," the candidate told the paper.

Although Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party is expected to defeat the opposition Conservatives, Labor found itself on the defensive over the tide of newcomers that has swept into Britain over the last eight years.

Blair has been a centrist leader, and has been close to both former President Clinton and President Bush. Many of Labor's traditional supporters strongly opposed Blair's support for the Iraq war. But the Tories, having supported the Iraq war themselves, were unable to capitalize on Blair's weakness over that, so they looked to immigration, the only issue on which voters favored the Conservative position.

While it doesn't appear to have worked, the debate over immigration—with race as an obvious subtext—underscored the huge challenges facing Britain and Europe over what may be the defining issue of the next decade.

Over the last eight years under Blair, the United Kingdom has seen a net influx of more than a million non-British immigrants, according to government figures. Anyone visiting Britain today who hadn't been here for many years would be struck by how ethnically diverse many parts of the country have become.

With a declining birthrate, Britain needs those immigrants, experts say; many of them do the jobs few others want, just as in the United States. And although there are problems, the UK is light years ahead of other big European countries in welcoming and integrating newcomers, nearly half of whom in recent years have been non-white. Immigrants have helped make London, where a third of residents are foreign-born, into Europe's biggest, richest and most dynamic city.

That, though, is the elite view. The masses remain unconvinced. Informed by popular right-wing tabloids that constantly highlight immigrants who live off welfare benefits, three quarters of the public regularly tell pollsters there are too many newcomers, and prospective voters said curbing immigration was the campaign's second most important issue after health care.

"From what I'm reading, it does seem to be escalating out of control," said Jim McMann, a 40-year old office worker who usually votes Labor, as he took a break in Woking's town square. "We can't just let everyone in."

Promising to enact tough controls, the Conservatives attacked Labor on the issue relentlessly, even when it meant backing away from their own records.

In addition to Malins, Conservative candidate Ed Matts was forced to apologize after his campaign doctored a photo of him at a protest supporting a refugee family's right to stay in the country. In the faked photo, the protest became one calling for controlled immigration.

The Tory message was perhaps best expressed by candidate Bob Spink, whose newspaper advertisement read: "What bit of `send them back' don't you understand, Mr. Blair?"

The Conservative leader, Michael Howard, refused to disavow such rhetoric despite the fact that his father was a Romanian Jewish immigrant, and that, according to a recent biography, his grandfather may have been saved from a Nazi gas chamber because he got into Britain illegally. Howard's grandmother was killed at Auschwitz.

The main Conservative campaign slogan—"Are you thinking what we're thinking?"—was widely seen as an appeal to voters who are resentful of immigration but afraid to say so in public.

Blair, whose government earlier this year had proposed stricter rules on migrants and the separate but related issue of asylum-seekers, walked a fine line in response. He accused the Tories of scare mongering, but he also called concerns about immigration legitimate.

"Frightening the people is easy; fighting the problem is tough," Blair said on April 22, addressing immigration in front of the white cliffs of Dover, where many migrants are processed. "We are a tolerant, decent nation. That tolerance should not be abused, but neither should it be turned on its head."

Tolerant or not, many argue that Britain needs immigrants. As with the rest of Europe, Britain's birth rate, at a historic low of 1.64 babies per woman, is not enough to replace its current population, which puts the country's economy and pension system at risk. (The U.S. birth rate is 2.0, just below the 2.1 replacement level.) Moreover, the number of Britons moving out of the country has increased to more than 300,000 a year.

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(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tony Blair

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050504 Labor history, 20050504 UK rule

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