Immigration Top Issue in British Election

In this closely fought district on the eastern outskirts of London, the opposition Conservatives — led by the son of a Romanian Jewish immigrant — are hitting hard on their promise to crack down on immigration just days before the election.

The message is resonating with many voters — even some immigrants. Others are disturbed by the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

"Sometimes I think the authorities are too soft," said Dalbir Deol Singh, a Sikh (search) voter in the Ilford North constituency now held by the governing Labour Party (search).

Although he's voting for Labour, he says his children will vote for the Conservatives "because they feel too many immigrants means trouble for all of us."

Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour Party is widely expected to win Thursday's national election — mainly on the strength of the booming economy. But immigration has emerged as a major issue in the campaign, with both Labour and the Tories pledging a tougher stand.

The issue is touchy in a nation whose current business prowess can in part be attributed to the energy and know-how of immigrants and where asylum applications rose to record levels in 2002, a trend Blair responded to by tightening admissions procedures.

His opponent, Conservative leader Michael Howard (search), has proposed putting caps on immigration levels and requiring HIV tests for newcomers.

In the 2001 election, Labour legislator Linda Perham won this district by just 2,115 votes — her share of the vote dipped by 1.6 percent compared with the previous ballot. On Thursday, she fears she may lose more votes — and even her seat — because of the immigration issue.

"I had someone say to me just yesterday that although they have been a lifelong Labour voter, they are going to vote Tory this time because of their immigration policy," she said. "But I think the Tory campaign has been poisonous and inherently quite racist."

Howard has denied any racist motives and says he favors admitting more "genuine" refugees.

Of the 70,000 registered voters who live in the neat suburban streets of Ilford North, some 8,000 are Indians, 2,000 are Pakistanis and 2,000 are Sri Lankans — groups that have not traditionally supported the Conservatives in large numbers.

Opposition to the Tories' hardline position on immigration remains strong here, despite the signs it may be finding a more sympathetic ear among minorities.

"I have worked for what I have — why should other people not be allowed to come and do the same?" asked Elaine Edwards, a longtime Labour voter who was born in Jamaica.

But Lee Scott, the Conservative candidate in Thursday's ballot, says many ethnic minority voters are coming over to his party because they — like their white neighbors — are worried about the numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers.

"Many people from the ethnic minorities are worried about immigration and asylum — some have even taken the trouble to phone me about it," he said as he checked piles of blue and white campaign leaflets Tuesday.

Immigrant workers perform crucial but usually poorly paid jobs on farms and construction sites, in hotels, hospitals and pubs. But fear of newcomers has intensified since the Sept. 11 terror attacks in the United States and last year's Madrid train bombings.

If elected, Howard says his party would pull Britain out of the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention (search), which obliges countries to take in asylum seekers based on need.

One of his campaign slogans is "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" — an apparent appeal to voters who are suspicious of foreigners but feel afraid to say so in public.

Blair is also promising a tougher stand on immigration. One of his campaign slogans is "Your country's borders protected," and he has vowed to recruit 600 more border guards.

The government is also considering imposing a so-called "Britishness test" of an applicant's knowledge of local culture, fingerprinting for all foreigners applying for visas, and electronic tagging — using tracking devices attached to the body — for asylum seekers so they are easier to find and deport if their bid for refugee status is rejected.

About 8 percent of Britons are born outside the country, a percentage similar to the rest of Western Europe. In the United States, the figure is 11.8 percent.