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John Lennon's Deportation Fight Paved Way For Obama's Deferred Action Policy

Aug 23, 2016
Originally published on August 24, 2016 7:34 am

Back in 1972, John Lennon hired Leon Wildes, an immigration attorney who had no idea who he was.

Wildes' son, Michael, remembers his father coming home to tell his mother about their first meeting.

"And he said, 'A singer by the name of Jack Lemon and his wife Yoko Moto,' " Michael recalls. "My mom looked at him like he wasn't well. 'Are you talking about the Beatles and John Lennon?' My father said, 'Yeah!' "

Over the next five years, Lennon and Wildes often were caught on camera outside immigration court in New York City — as well as on late-night talk shows, such as NBC's The Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder.

"What is your status in the country right now?" Snyder asked Lennon during a show taping in 1975.

"That's why Leon's here," Lennon answers. He glances over at Leon Wildes sitting across from him on a dark TV set. "What, what am I, Leon?"

"Well, John was charged with being deportable in the U.S. for being an overstay," says Wildes, who has written a new book about Lennon's deportation case called John Lennon vs. The U.S.A.

In other words, Lennon was on a tourist visa that expired while he was helping his wife, Yoko Ono, with a custody battle over her daughter from a previous marriage.

So Wildes got that visa extended. But immigration officials gave them only just over month before Lennon would have to leave. Later, Wildes put in an application for a green card, which was denied.

But Lennon still wanted to stay in America.

"I like to be here because this is where the music came from," Lennon said. "This is what influenced my whole life and got me where I am today."

Wildes appealed the denial.

But FBI files show that the Nixon administration wanted Lennon, along with his anti-war activism and influence over young voters, out of the country.

So Wildes started digging for another route.

"I always had a feeling that the government must have a program to exercise some discretion," Wildes said.

Asked why he had that feeling, Wildes said it was "because there were rumors of certain guys who were — had critical criminal backgrounds and bad immigration histories and seemed to be still around."

Those guys probably benefited from what's now known as "prosecutorial discretion." It's based mainly on the premise that the federal government doesn't have enough resources to deport all of the immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

Under federal law, immigration officials can choose to prioritize certain deportation cases while holding off on other ones for humanitarian or political reasons.

The problem at the time was that Wildes didn't have proof that this kind of program existed until he filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

"When the box came into my office, there was jubilation!" Wildes said. "Unbelievable feeling that I had succeeded."

In the end, Lennon received a green card, which allowed him to stay in the U.S. But those files led U.S. immigration officials to publicize a secret policy.

"Before the work of Mr. Wildes, deferred action was a complete mystery because there wasn't even a guideline for attorneys and noncitizens," says Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, who teaches immigration law at Penn State University and wrote Beyond Deportation: The Role of Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Cases.

The files showed that for decades, the government had shielded some immigrants living in the U.S. illegally from deportation because of their sympathetic cases. The Obama administration used that policy to create the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

"Eligible individuals who do not present a risk to national security or public safety will be able to request temporary relief from deportation proceedings and apply for work authorization," said President Obama in a 2012 announcement.

An expansion of the program, as well as the creation of a similar program called Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, is currently on hold because of legal challenges.

But today, the original DACA program covers more than 700,000 young people brought to the U.S. as children — all in part because of that immigrant from Liverpool.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A new book reveals a little-known link between a controversial immigration program started by President Obama and a rock legend. Obama's program is temporarily protecting more than a half million young people living in the U.S. illegally from deportation, and a famous immigrant's case uncovered some precedent for it - hard to imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMAGINE")

JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Imagine there's no country. It isn't hard to do.

SIEGEL: The book is called "John Lennon Vs. The U.S.A." The former Beatle once fought deportation, and his case helped shape immigration policy decades later. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang has more.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Back in 1972, John Lennon hired Leon Wildes, an immigration attorney who had no idea who he was. Wildes' son Michael remembers his father coming home to tell his mother about their first meeting.

MICHAEL WILDES: And he said, a singer by the name of Jack Lemmon (ph) and his wife, Yoko Moto (ph). My mom looked at him like he wasn't well. Are you talking about the Beatles and John Lennon? My father said, yeah.

WANG: Over the next five years, they were often caught on camera outside immigration court in New York City and on late-night talk shows like NBC's the "Tomorrow" show with Tom Snyder.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOMORROW COAST TO COAST")

TOM SNYDER: What is your status in the country right now?

LENNON: That's why Leon's here. What am I, Leon?

WANG: Lennon glances over at Leon Wildes, who's sitting across from him on a dark TV set.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOMORROW COAST TO COAST")

LEON WILDES: Well, John was charged with being deportable in the United States for being an overstay.

WANG: In other words, Lennon was on a tourist visa that expired. So Wildes got that visa extended. But immigration officials only gave them just over a month before Lennon would have to leave. Later Wildes put in an application for a green card which was denied. But Lennon still wanted to stay in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TOMORROW COAST TO COAST")

LENNON: I like to be here because this is where the music came from. This is what influenced my whole life and got me where I am today.

WANG: Wildes appealed the denial, but FBI files show that the Nixon administration wanted Lennon and his anti-war activism and influence over young voters out of the country. So Wildes started digging for another route.

L. WILDES: I always had a feeling that the government must have a program to exercise some discretion.

WANG: Why did you have that feeling?

L. WILDES: Well, because there were rumors of certain guys who were - had critical, criminal backgrounds and bad immigration histories and seemed to be still around.

WANG: Those guys probably benefited from what's now known as prosecutorial discretion. It's mainly based on the premise that the federal government doesn't have enough resources to deport all the immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Under federal law, immigration officials can choose to prioritize certain deportation cases while holding off on other ones for humanitarian or political reasons. The problem at that time was Wildes didn't have proof that this kind of program existed until he filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

L. WILDES: When the box came into my office, there was jubilation, unbelievable feeling that I had succeeded.

WANG: At this point, John Lennon was already on his way to a green card. But those files led U.S. immigration officials to publicize a secret policy. For decades the government had shielded some immigrants living in the U.S. illegally from deportation because of their sympathetic cases.

The Obama administration used that policy to create the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Today it covers more than 700,000 young people brought to the U.S. as children and now known as dreamers all in part because of an immigrant from Liverpool, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMAGINE")

LENNON: (Singing) You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

WANG: Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMAGINE")

LENNON: (Singing) I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one. Imagine no possessions. I wonder if you can - no need for greed or hunger. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.