John Lennon’s outspoken position as the founding member of The Beatles and one of the biggest rock stars on the planet offered him a great deal of attention both desired and wholly unwanted. It led to the singer being routinely hounded by the authorities and his association with left-wing ideologies made him a target for President Nixon too. All of this culminated in, at one time, Lennon facing deportation from the U.S., the land he had called home for some time.
After The Beatles had split, each member of the band turned their attention elsewhere. While all four members would pursue music, they would all do it in their own way. Paul McCartney went straight into a secluded studio and began endlessly twiddling knobs to create the perfect sound for his new group Wings. George Harrison took his new spiritual rock ‘n’ roll to the masses and Ringo Starr approached any new tunes with an affable smile. Meanwhile, John Lennon got political.
The singer had forged associations with left-wing ‘radicals’ during his time with The Beatles but free from the pressures of being in the Fab Four, Lennon was now able to push forward the peace agenda he and Yoko Ono had begun in 1969. As the Vietnam war intensified and Lennon’s position as the mouthpiece of a generation continued to gain prominence, it was only a matter of time before the Beatle would cross the line from a pop star into a potential threat to the establishment.
In the first part of the seventies, this attitude had put Nixon’s administration heavily on his back. Though it was suggested it was to do with a cannabis conviction from 1968, many believed the motives were politically based. Speaking with Dick Cavett in 1972, Lennon and Yoko Ono claimed the FBI had now begun to monitor their movements. Having angered President Richard Nixon with a series of outspoken demonstrations, criticising the Vietnam War and the American government, the pair believed they were being deliberately targeted for deportation, even after setting up their HQ in New York. During the interview, Cavett, ever the professional, quickly moves the duo along as they suggest the FBI’s involvement in their lives. Surely, such an organisation wouldn’t care about a singer and his partner?
We now know that, of course, the FBI was watching the couple. Brought to light by Jon Wiener, the FBI documented over 300 pieces of evidence on John Lennon around this time with virtually none of it having any substance whatsoever. But in 1972, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, nobody was any the wiser.
It did, however, put some extra spotlight on Lennon’s cause. The singer and Ono were able to connect with a massive audience and despite having a slight touch of the tin-foil-hats about their appearance, they came across as two fairly ordinary people trying to make their extraordinary life work for them. It helped gain Lennon and Ono working citizenship in the US.
The appearance welcomed an outpouring of support for the partnership, including none other than Lennon’s longtime friend, Bob Dylan. He wrote a letter to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, ending it with a simple plea: “Hurray for John & Yoko. Let them stay and live here and breathe. The country’s got plenty of room and space. Let John and Yoko stay.”
Lennon and Ono finally decided that they desperately needed a lawyer to not only help them fight the deportation case but, in the meantime, to also help Ono gain custody of her child from a previous relationship. The lawyer, Leon Wildes, attempted some truly novel approaches to try and lengthen the couple’s stay so that they could continue to at least fight the custody battle. They even spent some time trying to argue that hashish, a cannabis resin, wasn’t officially marijuana and so shouldn’t have carried such weight—it did enough to delay the case.
Eventually, in 1976, John Lennon would be granted his Green Card and become a U.S. resident and, with it, set a precedent for an immigration law that is still felt today. “The remarkable work of Leon Wildes really led to the old agency of INS making its policy about prosecutorial discretion and non-priority status public for the first time,” said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a law professor at The Pennsylvania State University Dickinson School of Law.
Simply put, before Lennon’s case the Immigration and Naturalization Service had not acknowledged that it used its own discretion when deciding whom to deport. Afterwards, they had to be far more transparent. “That discretion exists,” Wildes told The Guardian. “Any agency which is so huge has to be concerned how they spend their money and what they concentrate on and they shouldn’t be deporting people who are here for 25 years and never did anything really wrong. So that is the message that we got from representing John Lennon.”
There is a sad thought that had Lennon been deported from the U.S., it may well have saved his life. The Beatles founder sadly died after he was fatally shot outside his home in 1980 by murderer Mark Chapman and there’s a nagging sensation that would suggest had he been back in the UK, he wouldn’t have suffered such a fate.