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Leon Wildes, the immigration lawyer who defended John Lennon, dies at 90

Written by The Anand Market

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Leon Wildes, a New York immigration lawyer who successfully fought the U.S. government’s attempt to deport John Lennon, died Monday. in Manhattan. He was 90 years old.

His death, at Lenox Hill Hospital, was confirmed by his son Michael.

For more than three years, from early 1972 to the fall of 1975, Mr. Wildes (pronounced WY-ulds) fought hard against the Nixon administration’s and immigration officials’ targeting of Mr. Lennon, l former Beatle, and his wife, Yoko Ono. , bringing together a series of legal arguments that exposed both political chicanery and hidden U.S. immigration policy.

By revealing secret files through the Freedom of Information Act, he showed that immigration officials, in practice, can exercise broad discretion over who they choose to deport, a revelation that continues to resonate in immigration law. And it revealed that Mr. Lennon, an anti-war activist and outspoken critic of President Richard M. Nixon, had been singled out by the White House for political reasons.

Mr. Wildes was ultimately vindicated by a federal appeals court’s scathing decision in October 1975, which declared that “the courts will not tolerate selective expulsions based on secret political motives,” and ended the efforts to expel Mr. Lennon from the country. country.

Picturea black-and-white photo of mr. lennon and mr. wildes, standing in a crowd in front of several microphones.
Mr Lennon and Mr Wildes speak to reporters about the case, which centers on Mr Lennon’s conviction in London in 1968 for possession of marijuana.Credit…via Wildes Family Archives

The Beatles had broken up by 1970, and Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono moved to New York the following year. Mr. Lennon was convicted of possessing marijuana in London in 1968; this file would normally have prohibited him from entering, but he had obtained an exemption. The waiver was coming to an end and the Lennons received an eviction notice.

“It was a very scary moment,” Ms. Ono said in the 2007 documentary. “The United States vs. John Lennon.”

When the Lennons hired Mr. Wildes to represent them, he had barely heard of his famous clients. In his book about the case, “John Lennon vs. the USA,” published by the American Bar Association in 2016, he writes that he was vaguely aware of the existence of the Beatles – it was almost impossible not to be – but that the names of their members had escaped him .

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“I think it was Jack Lemmon and Yoko Moto,” he recalled telling his wife after meeting them at their apartment on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. She quickly corrected him.

In the 2007 film, Mr. Lennon is seen speaking to reporters about Mr. Wildes: “He’s not a radical lawyer. It’s not William Kunstler.

Mr. Lennon publicly opposed the Vietnam War – he recorded the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance” in 1969 – and participated in demonstrations on behalf of figures in the New Left movement, which campaign against the war.

Nixon administration officials feared that he would exert outsized influence on young people, who would be allowed to vote in greater numbers in the 1972 presidential election, the first after the voting age was raised. lowered from 21 to 18 years old. At the White House, that was enough for administration officials and their allies, including conservative South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, to lash out at Mr. Lennon.

Their case centered on the marijuana conviction in London. But appeal court judge Irving Kaufman ultimately ruled the crime was insufficient to make Mr Lennon an “excludable alien”.

The real reasons for Mr. Lennon’s quixotic pursuit, Mr. Wildes asserted, lay elsewhere, as he was able to show through his relentless digging into the files. Early in 1972, Mr. Thurmond wrote a letter recommending that Mr. Lennon be removed from the country, which Attorney General John N. Mitchell forwarded to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency then in charge of visas. Of particular concern was the fact that Mr. Lennon had performed at a rally in support of a New Left figure, the poet John Sinclair, who had been jailed for marijuana.

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“If Lennon’s visa were terminated, it would be a strategic countermeasure,” the South Carolina senator wrote.

Ten days later, “a telegram was sent to all immigration offices in the United States, ordering that the Lennons be granted no extension of their time to travel to the United States,” Mr. Wildes wrote in his book.

Over the next three years, the government continued to make its case, in efforts that seemed increasingly clumsy as public support for Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono grew. In letters and testimonies, many cultural celebrities of the era came to their defense, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Leonard Bernstein, artist Jasper Johns, and authors John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Joseph Heller, as well as Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York.

“The only reason the Lennons were deported was President Nixon’s desire to expel John and Yoko from the country before the 1972 election and allow a new, much younger electorate to gain the right to vote,” he said. writes Mr. Wildes. “To ensure his hold on power, all ‘dirty tricks,’ including misuse of the immigration process, were acceptable.”


Mr. Wildes, seated, consulted with his partner, Steven Weinberg, at their immigration law firm in 1983.Credit…via Wildes Family Archives

All the while, the FBI was closely monitoring Mr. Lennon. “The surveillance reports on him were literally hundreds of pages long,” Mr. Wildes wrote.

When Mr. Lennon learned of this scheme, he was furious. “They even change their own rules because we are pacifists,” he said in a television interview.

The 1975 judgment allowed him to remain in the country. He was killed outside the Dakota, the Upper West Side apartment building where he and Ms. Yoko lived, five years later.

In another major breakthrough, Mr. Wildes found that immigration officials had the discretion to deport or not, depending on whether there were extenuating circumstances. The revelation of this policy continues to help immigration lawyers fighting the deportation of non-citizens today.

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“As part of his legal strategy, Wildes conducted groundbreaking research on the ‘non-priority’ program and ultimately filed a request for ‘non-priority status’ for Lennon,” wrote immigration expert Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia in his 2015 book, “Beyond Deportation.” “Wildes learned that the INS had for many years granted ‘non-priority’ status to prevent the deportation of non-citizens with sympathetic cases, but the INS had never made this practice public.”

Throughout what Mr. Wildes acknowledged was the tedious work of representing the Lennons, he kept a quizzical and friendly eye on his celebrity clients, sometimes meeting them, as well as others, in what he called the “wonderful bed right” of their bank. Apartment on the street.

“You could meet half the world around this bed,” he writes: “radical guys like Jerry Rubin or Bobby Seale, weird musicians like David Peel, poets like Allen Ginsberg, actors like Peter Boyle, famous people television like Geraldo Rivera, or even political figures. agents like the deputy mayor of New York.


Mr. Wildes at his office in 2015. “He’s not a radical lawyer,” John Lennon said. “It’s not William Kunstler.”Credit…via Wildes Family Archives

Leon Wildes was born on March 4, 1933, in Olyphant, Pennsylvania, a small mining town near Scranton. His father, Harry, was a clothing and dry goods merchant, and his mother, Sarah (Rudin) Wildes, worked in his store. Mr. Wildes was educated in the Olyphant public schools and received a bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva University in 1954 and a law degree from New York University in 1958.

He quickly moved into immigration law, working for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a refugee aid organization, and helping two Americans who had gone to Israel establish their U.S. citizenship. He founded the immigration law firm Wildes & Weinberg in 1960 and later authored numerous law review articles on immigration law and taught at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. Yeshiva University.

Besides his son Michael, he is survived by another son, Mark; his wife, Alice Goldberg Wiles; eight grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Immigration law had “biblical importance” to him, recalled Michael Wildes, who is also a lawyer, in a telephone interview. “My father benefited from helping others achieve their American dream, as he did – the golden grail of a green card, or citizenship.”