Book of the Month: John Lennon vs. The USA

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The name and enduring fame of John Lennon is a luminous star in the realm of music and culture: but another story to be told is the spear that he and Yoko Ono—partners in art, music, and love—sent to the heart of political abuse of the immigration system by Nixon and his administration. John Lennon v. The USA, aptly subtitled The Inside Story of the Most Bitterly Contested and Influential Deportation Case in United States History, digs deep into the five-year immigration fight against the deportation ordered by Nixon and put into play by all who kowtowed to that secret executive directive.

The author, Leon Wildes, counsel for Lennon and Ono, was a buttoned-up kind of lawyer and highly respected in the field of immigration law for being thorough and thoughtful. He admits toward the end of the saga that this representation not only opened his eyes to a kind of constitutional abuse he had never thought possible under the American system, but to his equal surprise, exposed him to a creative and original spirit that took off some of his own “square edges.” When first asked to represent Lennon and Ono, he didn’t actually know who they were, and he had only vaguely heard of The Beatles. He knew only that Lennon had earlier pleaded guilty to a hashish possession charge in the U.K., and the U.S. government asserted this as sufficient cause for deportation.

To then President Nixon, one year before the next Presidential election, Lennon and Ono qualified as political enemies. Nixon, who had squeaked by on a thin majority in the 1968 election, particularly feared the impact of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 just in time for the 1972 election. Nixon saw Lennon’s and Ono’s anthems of love and peace and their overt support for the Left as a call to this potential voting base, which was already ignited by the rising tide of anti-Vietnam War protests and an incipient “dump Nixon” campaign.

Wildes tells a resonant story, harkening backward to the thick of things in the Nixon period, the special qualities of Lennon and Ono and their relationship to each other, all while explaining well the labyrinthine ways and means of the immigration legal system—a vocabulary to itself. A dazzle of artistic and cultural celebrities, including Fred Astaire, vied to support Lennon’s and Ono’s petitions to stay, with letters of support and testimony as to their exceptional artistic merit. Testimony also demonstrated their economic benefit to the U.S. economy, including gross American proceeds of $237 million from Lennon’s work through September 1971, and $4.5 million from Ono’s work since 1969, supporting a significant industry workforce.

It took five years of litigation, losses, delays, and appeals—which continued even after the Watergate scandal broke in 1972 and Nixon resigned in 1974—to be able expose what was best guessed at but could not then be proved: the political appropriation of the process, from Nixon’s plain desire to dilute their influence by finding a way to deport them from the country, to the immigration officials who masked this goal with an administrative opacity of inflexibility. Wildes credits the Freedom of Information Act as a mighty strategic force for slowly but ultimately yielding the secrets behind the curtain of immigration filings and appeals, demonstrating the vital use of FOIA in immigration defense cases. A major revelation included the release of INS Operation Instructions, rumored but not previously seen, that required the exercise of administrative discretion in ineligibility cases with clear equitable and humanitarian factors—a door that opened wide as far as the future, including its application to DACA.

In 1975, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Wildes’ argument that, after all, Lennon’s drug conviction did not qualify as cause for deportation or disqualify him from applying for permanent U.S. residence—and took sharp notice of the facts collected under FOIA. As back-up to its review of the case and the appropriate standards to be applied in a deportation proceeding, the court also sent a pointed message to the immigration officials in charge, as the case was remanded for reconsideration, that “[t]he courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds.” Lennon v. Immigration & Naturalization Service, 527 F.2d 187, 195.

The Wildes book is not only a well-written narrative of famous clients and the tenacious advocacy required for a hard-won and joyous result, but also a cautionary tale, as the book’s foreword makes clear: “…beneath it all, like a snake in the grass, lies the uncomfortable, intractable fact—the immigration system is still as subject to abuse by any incumbent administration as it was in 1972.”

Asked what had kept him and Ono going during this five-year legal battle, Lennon replied: “We’re artists. We have to tell it like it is.”

Five years after being granted legal status in the U.S., Lennon was killed outside the Dakota apartments in New York. Ono, a legal resident, and their son, Sean, born in the U.S., continue their work as artists and musicians.


More information on the case and its impact on immigration law is at the author’s website:


The original INS files on John Lennon are archived at:  https://www.uscis.gov/archive/john-lennon; and the FBI files on John Lennon are viewable at: https://vault.fbi.gov/john-winston-lennon.

To hear John Lennon himself, try this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HybcK892uBY.

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