The Shmooze

The Yeshiva University Professor Who Secured U.S. Residency for John Lennon

By Nathan Burstein

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All you need is love, but sometimes a good immigration lawyer is also helpful.

That’s what the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is reminding people today, the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death. Like countless Jews before him, the former Beatle faced resistance to his efforts to gain U.S. residency — though in his case the problem wasn’t xenophobia or anti-Semitism. An outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, Lennon made himself an enemy of the Nixon administration, which used a drug charge in England as a pretext to seek his deportation.

The lawyer who ultimately secured Lennon’s stay in the United States — over the course of four rounds in federal court — was Leon Wildes, a Yeshiva University law professor who now sits on the board of HIAS.

“I wasn’t very familiar with the Beatles,” Wildes says in a fall 2010 article in Passages, an HIAS publication. “The night I met the Lennons to discuss their legal situation, I went home and told my wife that I had met with Jack Lemmon and Yoko Moto.”

Wildes’ wife quickly set him straight, and the lawyer and his clients eventually triumphed after a five-year legal battle.

Three decades after the Beatle’s death, Wildes says a living Lennon could have made a strong ally for HIAS’s brand of advocacy and activism. “John was brilliant,” said Wildes, who remains in touch with Yoko Ono. “It’s a tragedy that we don’t have him around to speak up respectfully against the injustices of immigration law or the way it’s carried out. He had that gift.”


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