When immigration attorney Leon Wildes got a call from an old law school classmate in January 1972 about representing a musician and his wife who were facing deportation, their names didn't ring a bell.
Even after meeting with them privately at their New York City apartment, Wildes wasn’t entirely clear about who his potential clients were. He told his wife that he’d met with a Jack Lemon and Yoko Moto.
“Wait a minute, Leon,” his wife Ruth said to him. “Do you mean John Lennon and Yoko Ono?”
Wildes had indeed been approached to represent the former Beatle and his artist wife. In 1972, the couple were engaged in a custody battle over Ono’s daughter from a former marriage. Kyoko Ono Cox had been abducted by her father, and Lennon and Ono had come to the United States to search for her. Their visas were about to run out, and Kyoko had not been found. Lennon had a drug conviction from the United Kingdom for possession of cannabis resin, and he was concerned that this would prevent him from being allowed to stay. Wildes agreed to take their case, telling the couple that they should also consider seeking a more permanent residency in the United States.
What Wildes didn’t know when accepting the case was that he and his clients were facing a five-year legal battle that would eventually expose corruption at the highest levels of the Nixon administration and change the U.S. immigration process forever. His account of that legal battle is told in John Lennon vs. the USA: The Inside Story of the Most Bitterly Contested and Influential Deportation Case in United States History, published by the ABA’s Ankerwycke Publications.
Leon Wildes and his son Michael (now a managing partner at the firm his father founded, Wildes & Weinberg) joined the ABA Journal’s Lee Rawles to discuss the legacy of the case and the effect it’s had on the entire family.
Michael, who now teaches the same course in immigration law his father taught at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, was a preteen when Leon was fighting to secure the Lennons’ right to stay in the country.
John Lennon vs. The USA
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The family had reason to believe that their phone lines were being tapped, and Michael says that John Lennon would call the Wildes’ home using a disguised voice to speak with his father. He recalls with a laugh that his father would only speak over the phone about the case with family members in Yiddish—hoping that at least the FBI would have to hire a translator.
For more about the Wildes’ experiences during this time period, as well as the lasting impact the Lennon case has had on their lives, listen to this episode of the Modern Law Library.