Immigration Battle: Lennon vs Nixon
Updated: May 15
It was a strange situation to understand without knowing the inside details that would surface years later. Back in the 1970s, US government officials tried to deport John Lennon before he was eligible to receive a green card in July of 1976. The final green card Lennon received didn't just allow him to remain in the United States, it also represented a brutal and hard-fought courtroom victory over the US government. On his own without the other Beatles, John was left to encounter this struggle with a relatively new inner circle.
Several years prior to his successful green card, Lennon was under FBI surveillance which produced over 300 pages of information on his “activities”. The US government had gradually been building a case to deport John over his political activism. As the Vietnam War became more and more of a quagmire, with no end in sight, Lennon became a greater anti-war voice at large public events. It was during this time, Lennon’s reputation as a critic of the US military's involvement in Southeast Asia led to friendships with other anti-government radicals such as Jerry Rubin and Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale. It's an interesting side note that Jerry Rubin retired from politics in the mid-70s to become a corporate investor - very different from the socialist views he once held.
In December of 1971, just a few months after Lennon and Yoko moved to New York, he was found speaking at The John Sinclair Freedom Rally for White Panthers’ activist John Sinclair. The political activist (Sinclair) was serving a 10-year sentence for selling approximately 1 oz of marijuana. It was Sinclair who was the subject of noted anarchist Abbie Hoffman's rant during The Who’s show at Woodstock a few years prior. His war with the US government became a hot button topic for activists everywhere.
Sinclair would officially be released within days due to the mounting public pressures from celebrities such as Lennon. Unknown to Lennon, FBI agents were in the New York audience that afternoon taking notes on his speech. Those notes resulted in the John's first appearance on the FBI's radar. Historian John Weiner spent 14 years working for a release of the FBI files under the Freedom of Information Act. His book titled, “Give Me Some Truth to the John Lennon FBI Files”. The book portrays President Richard Nixon as being concerned that Lennon could potentially affect his White House re-election chances. According to the author, the 1972 election secretly tucked away an unknown wildcard since it was the first election in which 18-year olds had the right to vote. Before 1972's election cycle, the minimum age of voting was 21. Everyone noticed and were highly aware of younger people being the strongest antiwar constituency within the nation's voting blocks. And the concern for Lennon using his celebrity power of influence was viewed as problematic. Lennon's idea of encouraging the youth vote involved a plan to organize a concert tour of awareness against Nixon. The tour was pre-planned to follow Nixon's campaign stops across the country with a concluding three-day festival in Miami – home to that year’s Republican National Convention. By this point, the FBI was already tapping into Lennon’s phones and following him on even the most mundane of activities. Unknown to the FBI Lennon’s anti-Nixon touring plans never moved past the discussion stage, but it was too late – the damage was done. Lennon was soon forced into an unexpectedly different fight with the US government regarding his ability to remain in the country. The issue continued to build with Senator Strom Thurman, who was on the Internal Security Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee, writing a letter to the White House informing them of Lennon's discussion about a campaign tour to undermine Nixon. It was advised the former Beatles' immigration status would be the best approach to eliminate the possible campaign difficulty. A termination of his visa would force deportation back to England and effectively silence his voice. On March 1st, The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) delivered a letter to Lennon recommending he depart the country within two weeks or face deportation hearings.
How did the US government justify John Lennon’s deportation?
Government officials used John’s 1968 misdemeanor conviction of marijuana possession as grounds for priority deportation. While Lennon and his attorneys fought the INS, Hoffman and Rubin continued their plans to demonstrate outside the RNC Convention. After considering an invitation to perform at the RNC site, Lennon decided not to attend the protest with a preference for laying low. On August 30th, a memo was sent by the acting director of the FBI notifying the agency was placing their surveillance of Lennon on hold following continual non-contact or interaction with activists. That stoppage was, as Weiner pointed out, a victory for Nixon. The implication by Weiner was the INS and FBI had succeeded in pressuring John into cancelling plans for the national campaign and concert tour. Unfortunately, everyone involved seemed completely unaware that Lennon’s planned tour was just another legendary, short-term idea burst. The idea that rarely received a thought within days or weeks after its creation - a well known Lennon characteristic to friends. Weiner's belief also held the Nixon Administration’s pressure forced Lennon to withdraw from antiwar activism all together.
When the eventual time came to prepare for the immigration hearing, Lennon’s attorneys knew the government's case was weak. The former Beatles' legal advisor recommended limiting public activities and not further provoking the Nixon administration. Lennon weighed the activism against a strong desire to stay in the United States. Now in conflict, his previous priorities of activism fell to the side resulting in frustration from other activists. Lennon was determined to avoid the spotlight and quickly fell off the radar. There were other things occupying Lennon on a personal level, needing his attention such as Yoko’s custody dispute over her daughter from a previous marriage. For this and other reasons, John believed if his deportation would have been one sided with Yoko choosing to stay in the United States rather than move back to London.
Even after Nixon's successful reelection landslide, John continued to receive deportation notices from the INS. The extensions and appeals continued with a seemingly never-ending schedule of nonresolution. The frustration finally reached a boiling point and pushed Lennon’s hand. Lennon would hold a press conference on April Fool’s Day, 1973. During the press filled event, he announced the formation of Nutopia. A conceptual country with no land, no boundary, no passports or requirements of how people would receive citizenship. All citizens would be granted an ambassadorship resulting in their being entitled to diplomatic immunity anywhere. While Lennon returned to poking the tiger, his attorney recognized the need to apply greater pressure. Lennon’s legal team filed a lawsuit against the US government’s Attorney General and other officials involved in the deportation attempts. Lennon’s legal team’s investigation soon uncovered documents tracing communication from the FBI’s Herbert Hoover to H.R. Hadleman which informed Nixon's chief of staff regarding the FBI's progress in deportation. This discovery ultimately proved Nixon's political motives were the reason for deportation attempts rather than a belief Lennon was a threat to the American way of life.
As these final stages of the deportation investigation played out, Nixon became embroiled in the Watergate scandal which eventually resulted in his resignation during 1974. The presidential resignation effectively ended the ongoing fight against John Lennon. By October 1975, the New York State Supreme Court overturned the deportation order finding the courts will not condone selective deportation based on secretive political grounds. The judge said it was Lennon’s battle to remain showed a testimony to his faith in America. That courtroom victory also coincided with the birth of John’s second son, Sean. Eight months later a green card finally arrived on the steps of the courthouse providing Lennon the security he craved.
John held an impromptu press conference to thank fans who wrote to senators and formed petitions along with others working behind the scenes for the past five years.
Lennon would remain a resident of the United States until his death in December of 1980.