Harry Potter and immigration

HARRY POTTER as a parable of immigrants’ rights? Both my kids thought I was crazy when I first suggested this notion, half-way through the book on a recent Saturday afternoon. The more I read, though, the more sense the idea made.

Among the crucial issues separating the bad guys from the good guys in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is their position on the rights of Muggles, half-bloods and Muggle-borns. For the non-initiated, let me clarify: Muggles are ordinary humans without wizarding powers. A half-blood is the offspring of a Muggle and a pure-blood wizard. Muggle-borns are people with wizard powers born into Muggle families, like the heroine Hermione.


The evil Malfoy family sniffs about its ancient lineage and its pure blood; young Draco torments Hermione at school about being a “Mud-blood,” contaminated by her Muggle background. When Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry of Magic they establish a “Muggle-Born Registration Commission” and distribute a pamphlet entitled “Mudbloods and the Dangers they Pose to a Peaceful Pure-Blood Society.”


Wizards fake their family trees to claim pure-blood status. A wizard accused of having Muggle parentage begs to be spared prison because he’s a half-blood—his father was a wizard, and he has written documentation of his legal status. The Registration Commission interrogates prisoners to determine their correct status, and punishes a woman of non-wizard parents for using a wand, a privilege reserved for wizards.


Some have suggested that Voldemort’s obsession with purity of blood and ancient wizarding families is meant to suggest a reference to Nazi Germany. But the Nazis were not the only historical example of a group claiming the right to dominate others based on ancestry, birth or blood. Spanish Christians relied on the concept to justify the expulsion of Muslims and Jews in 1492, and the domination and enslavement of Africans and indigenous Americans thereafter. U.S. law uses the concept today to justify the exclusion of millions of people in the United States: non-citizens, or even worse, those it defines as “illegal immigrants.”


“But U.S. nationality isn’t based on ideas about blood!” my readers will protest. “We are all immigrants here! Our laws explicitly prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or national origin!”


And there’s the rub. While our laws do prohibit this kind of discrimination, they also prescribe it. Our immigration, citizenship and naturalization laws are based explicitly on discrimination on the basis of national origin. Where you were born, and what passport you carry, determine whether you have the right to come here, to visit, to work, or to live here.


It wasn’t always that way. Until the Civil War, U.S. citizenship was based on race rather than birthplace, and there were no restrictions on immigration. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the concept of citizenship-by-birth was inscribed into U.S. law. Before that, whites could be citizens, no matter where they were born, while non-whites, which at the time meant primarily Native Americans and African Americans, could not be citizens, even if their ancestors were here long before any Englishmen arrived. People considered racially unfit for citizenship were welcomed, or even forced to immigrate, in the case of Africans, on condition that they and their descendants would remain a permanent underclass of non-citizens—physically present, but with few legal rights.


But citizenship-by-birth didn’t mean the end of racial discrimination. It meant that lawmakers scrambled to make sure that those they considered racially unfit couldn’t take advantage of the new citizenship law. Almost immediately after the new law was enacted, in 1866, Congress began restricting immigration. Chinese, Japanese and then all Asians were only the first to be told that they couldn’t come any more, because the government didn’t want their children to be able to obtain citizenship by birth.


I’m not claiming to be able to read J. K. Rowling’s mind. But for her readers in the United States, the desperate struggle of Muggle-borns and half-bloods to document their status, the punishments meted out by the Ministry of Magic to those who try to work or attend school without documents proving their lineage, and Voldemort’s obsession with determining just who has true wizard ancestry, and restricting and punishing those who don’t, have some pretty powerful resonances with the last massive legalized form of discrimination in our own society: discrimination against non-citizens.


I suppose it’s possible to make a general statement about tolerance and discrimination in a society characterized by serious legalized inequality, and yet discuss the issue entirely in the abstract, with no reference at all to the discrimination going on around you. But a tome about tolerance written in Nazi Germany, for example, would inevitably be read as a commentary on Nazi policies — either that, or as evidence of just how brainwashed the public was, that it could advocate tolerance while remaining oblivious to the intolerance of its own society.


The main audiences for Rowling’s book are in Britain and the United States. In both countries, tolerance is officially promoted at the same time that one group of people is conspicuously excluded: immigrants. Citizenship-by-birth may be racially blind if a country has open borders, but with walls, border patrols, and a long history of racially restrictive immigration laws, “citizenship” becomes just another means to enforce discrimination and exclusion.


Legalized discrimination in the United States goes way beyond the immigration-quota system that still prescribes different treatment for people from different countries.


What else can it be called, when millions of people are not allowed to work, not allowed to go to school, not allowed to live in certain places, not allowed access to all of the benefits that society offers to the rest of its members? When the police raid workplaces to round them up and deport them? When they live in fear that their very existence will be discovered, and they will be punished?


Perhaps we can all learn something from Rowling’s characters: from the Weasley family, ardent defenders of the rights of the non-wizard-born, on to Hermione, the “mud-blood” who out-wizards them all, and finally Harry, whose quest to defeat the evil Voldemort is inextricably bound up with the defense of the rights of those whom Voldemort seeks to expel, exploit and destroy. If we cannot see reflections of our own national discourse on immigrants in their struggle, perhaps we are closing our eyes to Rowling’s most important lesson.



Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history at Salem State College. Her new book, They Take Our Jobs! And 20 Other Myths About Immigration, was just published by Beacon Press.

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