Antonio Massa Viana was a star law student at Roger Williams University. He edited the law review and triumphed in the moot court competition. The Supreme Court chief justice knew his name.
He was also in the United States illegally, diving headlong into a profession where the laws were literally stacked against him. Except in Massachusetts, where in 2014 Viana became the first known unauthorized immigrant to earn a law license.
“A lot of people told me ‘you’re never going to be able to go to law school’ because of my status,” Viana, a 39-year-old from Brazil, said in one of a series of interviews in recent months. “It hasn’t been easy at all, but here I am.”
Viana is now here legally — he said he received a green card last year through his wife, a naturalized US citizen from Argentina — and he says he is sharing his story to inspire others like him. But his disclosure is also likely to stir debate in a state that — unlike California — has not said whether unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to be lawyers.
Viana’s long and complicated immigration history began when his mother came to America as a teenager in 1962 to marry a US citizen. They had two American children and she received a green card, but it lapsed after she and her husband split up. She returned to Brazil and had two more children, including Viana.
The family returned to America when Viana was 12. His mother tried to get Viana a green card but filled out the wrong form and he had to go back to Brazil. When he was 19 he came back as his family settled in New York and tried again, but he had missed the age cutoff by one year.
Over the next two decades, Viana tried to get a green card through family and work. Most of his relatives are US citizens, including his mother, but lawyers told him there was no avenue for him to apply.
Along the way he became an expert in immigration law. When his wife, a music director at a Catholic church, lost her religious-worker visa, lawyers said they could not help. But Viana scoured the internet and found a class-action lawsuit that helped her get a green card in 2009.
But there was little Lelia could do for her husband since she was not yet a US citizen.
Finally in 2010, Viana offered to surrender to federal immigration officials and leave his fate to an immigration judge. But he had no criminal record; he owned a home, paid taxes, and had three US citizen children. Immigration officials declined to take him into custody.
Viana couldn’t get a visa — and he couldn’t get deported.
So he went to law school instead.
The lanky musician with a mop of curly brown hair had been a classical guitarist, a journalist, and published poet. But solving his wife’s legal problems inspired him to try law.
“We need good attorneys,” Viana said. “For me, we needed someone who had gone through the process, who had the perspective, who could understand what these people really go through.”
Michael Donnelly-Boylen, the assistant dean of admissions at Roger Williams University in Bristol, recalled marveling at Viana’s impeccable writing and global views in his application. And he remembers pausing when Viana then disclosed that he was here illegally.
“We weren’t unaware that it may not be great publicity, but we knew it would be great for the student body,” Donnelly-Boylen said. “His voice would educate everyone else.”
Viana said he received a full scholarship. Over the next three years, professors said Viana excelled. He commuted daily from Millis, juggling work and his young family. As editor of the law review, he published three times in one year, an effort one admiring professor likened to “herding poisonous snakes.”
Then Viana stunned some professors by declaring that he wanted to take the bar exam in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Some feared his story would become public and suggested that he stick to research or advocacy until he could find a path to a green card.
But Viana was inspired by law students in New York, California, and Florida who fought for law licenses and won. Like him, all had been stellar students, and had been in the country since they were young. In Florida, the lawyer had been an Eagle Scout and high-school valedictorian.
“One of my favorite professors said, ‘Why are you going to do this?’ ” Viana recalled. “But I did it because I needed to do it.”
He disclosed his legal status to Rhode Island officials and was allowed to take the exam, though he was not allowed to get a law license until he was a legal permanent resident or a citizen, as the state requires.
Viana said he called Massachusetts officials and discovered that the state had no such requirement for people taking the bar exam.
He passed both bar exams on the first try. Massachusetts issued his law license in 2014 and ironically, he ended up defending clients facing deportation in federal immigration court. Court officials had no comment.
Maura Doyle, the elected clerk of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, said she did not know that Viana had overstayed his visa when she swore him in. But she acknowledged that state law does not restrict law licenses to legal residents.
Until 1973, Massachusetts required lawyers to be US citizens, but that year the US Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Connecticut because it discriminated against non-citizens.
After the Supreme Court ruling, Massachusetts courts started to admit noncitizens to the bar, but the state never clarified whether immigrants here illegally should also be allowed to apply.
Doyle said she would alert lawmakers that they should update the state law, which was never changed to reflect the 1973 court ruling. Doyle declined to say whether she thought unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to apply.
After Viana joined the Massachusetts bar, his wife became a US citizen and sponsored him for a green card. His decades-long fight was over.
Except for his unfinished business in Rhode Island.
On June 29, Viana arrived at the Rhode Island Supreme Court for the swearing-in ceremony amid an unusually large gathering of well wishers, including the current law school dean, the former dean, and other officials. Some had tears in their eyes.
At 9:16 a.m. the green curtains parted in the solemn chamber and Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell stepped forward to swear in Viana.
The chief justice told Viana he had taken “a rather circuitous route to the Rhode Island bar, not for a lack of competence or character, I might add.”
In the audience, Viana’s wife wept. Their children Cecilia, 14, and Francisco, 12, listened, while 8-year-old Joaquim doodled the name “Alexander Hamilton,” on lined paper.
Suttell joked that expectations for Viana were high and that he could back out if the pressure was too much.
Viana said he would take the oath. “It’s been a long time coming,“ he said, and raised his right hand.
Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.