Forty-five years ago this week, on July 18, 1974, John Lennon was ordered deported from the United States, ostensibly because he had possessed and used a small amount of marijuana in violation of UK law. In actuality, it was because then-president Richard Nixon felt threatened by Lennon and his antiwar activism, so the White House pressured the Department of Justice to selectively prosecute this high-profile case.
Had it not been for the resignation of Richard Nixon a few weeks later, Lennon would have been barred from setting foot in this country.
As my friend, former colleague, and now state Rep. Joe Hohenstein said, Lennon was the proverbial “working-class hero,” the title of one of his favorite songs. On Saturday morning, Joe and I talked about another working-class hero who finds himself in the same desperate situation as Lennon, for basically the same reason.
Tragically, it doesn’t look like this story will end on the same positive note.
Keith Byrne came to the United States from his native Ireland over a decade ago, with no intention of doing anything more than travel. Then, he met and fell in love with Keren and her young son, and the trajectory of his life changed. They got married, Keith and Keren, who live in Springfield Township, Pennsylvania, had two more children and did everything they could to get right with the immigration system. They hired my friend Joe, and Keith was candid about his past. That past included two incidents of marijuana possession for personal use when he was in his early 20s.
These were civil — not criminal — offenses in Ireland. In fact, the language of the law that Keith violated is identical to the language of the law that John Lennon violated in the UK. Keith paid a fine, and because they weren’t considered criminal offenses, he wasn’t even represented by a lawyer.
Fast forward a decade, when Keith and Keren met with Joe. Fully knowing the risks of revealing the marijuana arrests and yet determined to do things the right way, Keith admitted the offenses to the immigration office in his paperwork. If he hadn’t, it’s completely unlikely anyone would have ever known what happened, because there wasn’t a record.
But as his wife told me, “It is a total testament to Keith’s character that he volunteered the information about the drug charge on his application for the green card, but it is that honesty that has kept him from obtaining it.”
When Keith and Keren had their marriage interview, it was clear to everyone that this was a good faith, loving couple. But because of the marijuana arrests, he was denied what we call “adjustment of status.” Keith and Keren, with the help of Joe, took the case all the way up through the federal court system, and while the government refused to give Keith his green card, Joe told me that the U.S. attorney confirmed they had no interest in deporting a man who was raising three children, including a stepson, was the owner of his own flourishing business, paid taxes and even donated to charity.
That apparently changed, with the current administration’s decision to ignore the very compelling, very unique equities of each case and just sweep them all together under one large umbrella of “illegal alien.”
Keith was picked up near his house this week on his way to work and is detained. He still has some Hail Mary legal passes left, and my review of the work of his three attorneys, including the two who took over after Joe was elected to the state House, shows that he has gotten excellent, almost superhuman assistance from the best in the profession.
And yet, that wasn’t enough. When I spoke with Keren, I asked her about the possibility of moving to Ireland to be with her husband. She told me that her oldest son, Keith’s stepson, has a strong relationship with his biological father and should not be deprived of his love and company. And then she said this:
“Keith doesn’t deserve to be separated from us, and our kids don’t deserve to lose their father. He is not a criminal. He was ripped off the street, taken in like a criminal, but he is not. He is our light, and our hearts, and we need him back.”
Joe Hohenstein put it another way: “Keith reflects the quintessential American spirit of someone who makes the best of the life that they’ve been given, and turns themselves around.”
While it’s easy for people to talk in black and white terms about legal and illegal, especially in the wake of raids that will destroy families nationwide, it’s important to remember that human lives are not fungible goods, nor are they easily defined and categorized with one-size-fits-all classifications.
Just as John Lennon deserved the chance he was given to live in his adopted country, so should Keith Byrne be given the same opportunity.
His honesty, his love of family, his resilience, and the fact that he has fought so hard to remain in the place he has come to love should count for something at a time when nothing seems to matter other than empty rhetoric, words not worthy of a Lennon song.