RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Should they stay, or should they go? That is the question facing voters in the United Kingdom tomorrow. In or out of the European Union? Immigration and national identity have been big issues in the so-called Brexit campaign. Many who want to leave the EU complain it allows too many foreigners to flow too freely into the U.K. To understand this divide, NPR's Frank Langfitt visited two very different communities. We begin our coverage in the town of Rumford.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Tony Thompson wants out, and the burly 58-year-old butcher says there's one main reason.
TONY THOMPSON: Got to stop immigration, yeah? Because it's only an island, you know? You can only get so many people on an island, can't you?
LANGFITT: Thompson says immigration has cost him. He had a butcher shop in London's famed East End, but over time, his white, British-born clients moved out and were replaced by Muslims from Somalia, Pakistan and India.
THOMPSON: And those people don't use English butchers, you know? They were halal. It's all halal. And that's when I noticed a lot of change because my business went under.
LANGFITT: Because all the customers nearby wanted halal or something different?
THOMPSON: They wanted halal that was different. It's a different people.
LANGFITT: Thompson knows how this sounds.
THOMPSON: I mean, I've got four mixed-race boys. So I am not racist.
LANGFITT: Thompson now works farther to the east in Rumford, part of the London borough of Havering. But he says the ethnic makeup here is shifting, too.
THOMPSON: It's like the English are being pushed out to the coast. And the main towns, I mean even Birmingham and all them places, it's not England anymore. It's got nothing to do with color and race, necessarily. You know, people here are fairly tolerant.
LANGFITT: Lawrence Webb is with the U.K. Independence Party. He's a councilman in this area, which the online polling firm YouGov estimates is the most anti-European in the country. Although the vast majority of people here are white, the percentage of minorities has more than doubled since 2001. Webb says rapid growth has frustrated locals.
LAWRENCE WEBB: People perceive that their quality of life has diminished, even to the point of fact that a journey that used to take you 10 minutes to get across the border now takes you 30 minutes. There are more people, more cars on the road, and we can see it, all the green spaces are disappearing. Where there once there was one big house there's now 10 flats.
LANGFITT: If you drive five hours to the west of Rumford, you end up here in a town called Aberystwyth. It's on the Welsh Coast, and it has this kind of classic U.K. seaside look. There's a big pier here to my left. It's also interesting, there are flags from all over the world that are waving here along the seaside. And according to that poll, this is one of the most pro-European communities in all of the United Kingdom.
Shumana Palit is making coffee at Ultracomida, a Spanish restaurant and deli in town. People like her are the evolving face of Great Britain.
SHUMANA PALIT: I'm originally from Wales so I'm half-Welsh, but my father is from India. So I have a mix in my family. My husband is half-Spanish, half-French.
LANGFITT: Although Aberystwyth is remote, it has a much more cosmopolitan feel than Rumford. Palit says a major reason is Aberystwyth University, which has students from all over.
PALIT: So you've got a mixture of different nationalities in quite a small town, really. It feels very European when you're here. It doesn't feel like somewhere that wants to be cut off from Europe.
LANGFITT: Instead of seeing membership in the EU as a problem, as butcher Tony Thompson does, many businesses here see this crucial to their success because it allows them to trade freely with the continent. I spoke with Ultracomida owner Paul Grimwood.
What kind of impact would a Brexit have on your business?
PAUL GRIMWOOD: Immediate and substantial. I believe I place maybe 30 orders with Spain a month. Already the pound has slid against the euro. If things start to unravel, well, I haven't done the maths, but I think it's a 20 percent rise in my costs.
LANGFITT: In some parts of the country, people complain working-class immigrants drive down wages. But Cameron Singhclare - he's an economics student at the university - says foreigners here are different and less of a competitive threat.
CAMERON SINGHCLARE: The majority of people who became (unintelligible) here are students or academics or professionals. And so maybe that's why there's less resentments about the migration from the EU.
LANGFITT: Toby Bragg works here in town at Summit Cycles. He's spent much of his career in the U.K. and Europe working with people of different nationalities. He says Britons who don't like the changing ethnic makeup of the country have short memories.
TOBY BRAGG: I mean, we're essentially an island so if you look back through history, we've been colonized, overtaken, (laughter), invaded, assimilated many, many different ways. And I get the idea that for some people, there's this sort of - this very sort of English England, which probably never existed or ever will.
LANGFITT: Recent polls suggest voters are almost evenly divided over whether to leave or stay in the EU, much like the communities of Rumford and Aberystwyth. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.