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In Florida, a scammer profited from immigrants pretending to be a lawyer: his clients were deported

In early 2018, a woman postponed cancer treatment to pay Elvis Harold Reyes more than $ 4000 to change immigration status and allow him to legally stay in Florida, says The Washington Post.

Photo: Shutterstock

She was just one of hundreds of immigrants who approached Reyes. He introduced himself as a philanthropist, lawyer and pastor who studied immigration law as a former FBI agent and who helped the immigrant community through his nonprofit ministry.

Instead, according to the Florida District Attorney's Office, he led a “life of a fraud” that led his victims to financial ruin - and even deportation.

Reyes, 56, was sentenced to more than 20 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to dozens of charges related to a sophisticated scheme to defraud immigrants by filing fake immigration documents and intercepting messages from the USCIS to cover up fraud. for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“For years, Reyes has exploited vulnerable immigrants in our community and misrepresented our immigration system for personal gain,” the federal attorney’s memo said.

Dozens of Reyes' victims on Monday, April 12, spoke at the sentencing hearing and talked about the pain he caused them and their families.

Carmen Sanchez said her son was deported to Mexico after paying Reyes to ensure his family's legal status.

“When we complained to him, Reyes said he was going to call the immigration authorities to come to our house and find us,” Sanchez said. "It played on our hopes and feelings."

According to prosecutors, his conspiracy began at least in 2016, but possibly earlier. In the same year, Reyes, who lived in Brandon, Florida, began advertising immigration services to Hispanic immigrant communities near the Tampa Bay area. He created the nonprofit EHR Ministries Inc. to encourage victims to “trust him and have no doubts about his costly services,” prosecutors said.

On the subject: How to find a free immigration lawyer

On the ministry's website and Facebook page, Reyes described the alleged charity as "a non-profit religious organization and a 501 (C) 3 registered organization with the IRS" and "a certified immigration service provider."

Reyes also posted photos of two fake graduate degrees, which he framed on his wall: a fake bachelor's degree from the University of Bridgeport and a fake law degree from the University of Connecticut Law School. According to emails filed in evidence, none of the universities had any records of Reyes.

When immigrants and their families turned to Reyes for help in finding legal status, Reyes promised them a driver's license and work permits for about $ 5000. But instead of starting a legal trial, he asked victims to sign blank forms and then filed fake asylum applications without telling clients what he was telling immigration officials.

These forms, which claimed that his clients were afraid of returning to their home countries, automatically initiated interviews and hearings. But Reyes provided inaccurate contact information so that he could intercept all communications from USCIS and the courts. When the immigrants failed to show up for the required interviews and in court, the deportation procedure was automatically initiated.

Prosecutors said Reyes completed at least 225 fake forms and stole at least $ 411.

According to court records, at least six of Reyes' victims were deported and another six were ordered in absentia. One client who is married to a US citizen may not be granted legal status due to Reyes' scam.

Due to a lag in the immigration system, Reyes' scam went unnoticed for years, and many of his clients were able to obtain driver's licenses and work permits before officials discovered the fake documents. Many of his victims have built lives in Florida for years without realizing that they have been robbed and may have been about to be deported.

By the time the fraud was discovered, many victims were facing financial despair and insurmountable immigration complications.

“For vulnerable immigrants trying to gain a foothold in a new country, the sudden loss of $ 5000 could be catastrophic,” the prosecutor’s office said.

All the while, Reyes spent the money he received from immigrants on a "luxurious lifestyle," which prosecutors said included designer clothes, spa treatments, expensive furniture and expensive jewelry. He paid his girlfriend the rent and gave her a monthly “allowance” of $ 500.

When victims became aware of Reyes' deception, prosecutors said he sometimes threatened them. Reyes sent friends messages boasting that he was turning over his clients to immigration authorities. He called his victims "pieces of trash" and "stupid people."

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In May 2019, an investigation published by Univision Tampa Bay uncovered Reyes' fraud for the first time and led to an official investigation into the activities of an impostor lawyer. Around the same time, immigration officials also noticed a pattern in Reyes' fabricated forms, prosecutors said.

Reyes had previous convictions, according to prosecutors, including 12 convictions for check and currency fraud and seven convictions for grand theft. Previously, he was caught issuing unpaid home purchases, using another person's social security number to obtain a loan, and signing checks to himself using a stolen checkbook.

Federal Judge Virginia Covington sentenced Reyes to 12 years and 20 months in federal prison on April 9, followed by 36 months of supervised release.

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