Twenty-three years ago, ex-Beatle John Lennon won a long bruising battle to live in America.

The message was clear: Get back to where you once belonged. Though John Lennon had been living in New York City for nearly six months while his second wife, Yoko Ono, fought for custody of her daughter from an earlier marriage, the U.S. government wanted him out. When Lennon and Ono’s temporary visas expired in early 1972, officials began working eight days a week to expel him. From the start, this had been no ordinary immigration case. The INS cited Lennon’s 1968 U.K. drug conviction as grounds for deportation. Yet, according to Lennon’s immigration lawyer, Leon Wildes, and others, the ex-Beatle’s real foes were government officials who feared the rock star’s enormous influence and radical politics. Lennon refused to slink back to England, and — along with Ono and Wildes — he vigorously fought deportation. The fight raged on for nearly four years, prompting a grueling series of hearings and four nerve-racking federal court appearances. ”I think it stunted his artistic ability,” says Wildes (Lennon recorded the uninspired Walls and Bridges and Rock ‘n’ Roll during this time). ”Artists need a sense of security to do their work.”

But aided by such heavyweight sympathizers as New York mayor John Lindsay, Lennon and Wildes accumulated a string of increasingly important victories, and finally, on Oct. 7, 1975, a court of appeals decided Lennon could stay. ”I called John at home, and he answered in the high-pitched voice he always used to make believe he was the maid, because his phones were tapped,” remembers Wildes. ”I said, ‘John, we won.’ He said, ‘What do you mean? You told me I could never win.’ I said, ‘You’re correct, but we won.”’ That night Wildes celebrated with Lennon, 34, and Ono, 42, at New York Hospital, where she would give birth to Sean Lennon two days later. It was, however, a short-lived victory: Five years later Lennon would be murdered in the very city he had fought so hard to live in.