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Immigration May Play A Big Role In Next Week's 'Brexit' Vote


Britain is preparing to vote in just a week on whether to leave the European Union. For those who want to abandon the EU, immigration is a big reason. NPR's Peter Kenyon has this report from the city of Leeds.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: On the main shopping street, a busker plays American hits. And 75-year-old John Rudge-Priestley says he'll be voting to exit the EU because Brussels has ignored British complaints about the rising tide of immigrants.

JOHN RUDGE-PRIESTLEY: I don't think the multi-culturalism has worked because they won't integrate, won't the Muslims. Immigration is a big problem in this country and the European leaders don't seem to be doing anything whatsoever about it.

KENYON: The Leave camp has been attacked for running what the critics call a racist campaign. And some voters, like Rudge-Priestley, are talking about keeping Muslims out. But the larger concern here is about other Europeans moving in, people from Poland or Bulgaria with EU passports that give them access to British jobs and British social benefits. Some 70 miles to the east in Liverpool, anti-Europe, anti-migrant sentiment is also strong, even though there's ample evidence of the jobs and economic growth brought by EU money.

KENYON: The refurbished docks along the Mersey Estuary are full of tourists wandering among galleries, shops, museums and restaurants. In 2008, Liverpool was an EU capital of culture, attracting nearly 10 million visitors. Veteran journalist Larry Neild says for decades, politicians in London essentially left Liverpool to rot. And then along came the European Union, which took one look at Liverpool and designated it one of the pauper regions of Europe.

LARRY NEILD: This city, once the greatest sea port in the world, was now the pauper region of Europe. And that meant that we were entitled to a bagful of money. And that there amounted to something like 2.5 billion U.S. dollars.

KENYON: Even so, people here are asking if the EU money is worth the migration that comes with it. In the Walton neighborhood, where there's no sign of investment from the EU or anywhere else, bakery employee Jeannie Porter says she understands the economic argument for staying in the EU, but...

JEANNIE PORTER: Well, I do agree with the - what are they - immigrants coming over. I think we should really clamp down on that.

KENYON: It's not a simple issue in a port city where many people are themselves descended from immigrants. Retired hardware store owner Richard Barnes says his mother was American, his father-in-law Irish, and he firmly believes immigrants are good for the economy, no matter how far they've traveled.

RICHARD BARNES: Ninety percent of the people who come from Africa - no, 99 percent - are hard-working, add to our economy. Our health service runs off them.

KENYON: The problem, says Barnes, is that the U.K. social safety net can't cope with all the people signing up for benefits, many of them migrants. Journalist Larry Neild says he's not sure if Liverpool will vote to remain in the EU or leave. Frankly, he says, if you live in the North, it's hard to tell which government is worse.

NEILD: The dilemma for people in Liverpool is they got the choice of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels or useless bureaucrats in London. You can actually toss a coin.

KENYON: Analysts say despite the criticism it's received, the Leave Campaign sees immigration as its most powerful issue and will likely keep it front and center as the vote approaches. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Liverpool. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.
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