A Florida man who posed as an immigration lawyer, filing hundreds of fraudulent asylum applications and collecting more than $411,000 from unwitting clients, has been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison, federal prosecutors said.
The man, Elvis Harold Reyes, 56, of Brandon, Fla., pleaded guilty in December to charges of mail fraud and aggravated identity theft, and was sentenced on Monday to serve 20 years and nine months, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida said in a statement.
From 2016 to 2019, Mr. Reyes, who owned and operated a Christian nonprofit group called EHR Ministries Inc., portrayed himself as an immigration lawyer even though he was not licensed as one, according to court documents. A website for the ministry says it helps prepare immigration documents and applications, provides “wedding ceremony services” and caters “to those that are away from any home church.”
Prosecutors said Mr. Reyes sought out undocumented immigrants in the Tampa area who were originally from Spanish-speaking countries and were seeking Florida driver’s licenses and work authorization. Clients retained and paid Mr. Reyes to represent them on immigration-related matters before U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and other agencies, prosecutors said.
He charged about $5,000 for his services, according to court documents. The losses to the victims totaled more than $411,000, and Mr. Reyes spent the money on travel, luxury shopping, spa visits, jewelry and an allowance for his girlfriend, prosecutors said.
In all, Mr. Reyes filed more than 225 fraudulent applications, “intending to cause victim loss of more than $1 million,” the statement said. The court deferred consideration of victim restitution to a later date.
“Posing as an immigration attorney, Reyes targeted hundreds of vulnerable people in the Tampa community with his immigration scam,” Michael Borgen, the Tampa district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a statement after Mr. Reyes was sentenced. He said his agency was “committed to finding and stopping those who want to cheat the immigration system, and preserving it for those who qualify for immigration benefits.”
The federal public defender who represented Mr. Reyes did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Mr. Reyes was booked into the Pinellas County jail, according to jail records.
Prosecutors said Mr. Reyes “gave false, inaccurate, and incomplete legal and immigration advice to victims in order to induce them to retain his services and those of EHR Ministries.” He used word-of-mouth referrals, social media, websites and business cards to market his services, according to court documents.
He filed fraudulent applications in his victims’ names “seeking asylum relief and withholding-of-removal protections provided for under the United Nations Convention Against Torture,” prosecutors said.
In the applications, Mr. Reyes fabricated stories about threats and persecution, and about his clients’ fear of returning to their native countries, prosecutors said.
Mr. Reyes did not tell his victims about the false information he had submitted to the immigration authorities on their behalf, nor did he inform them “about the legal, administrative, and other immigration-related consequences that might follow from filing for asylum relief or for Convention Against Torture protection,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Prosecutors said Mr. Reyes threatened the victims who confronted him by claiming he could have them deported. And as he was being investigated, they said, he attempted to obstruct justice by having a friend wipe his computers.
Some of Mr. Reyes’s victims gathered outside the federal courthouse in downtown Tampa as he was being sentenced on Monday. They held signs written in Spanish, including one that said, “Elvis Reyes stole our money,” The Tampa Bay Times reported.
Jesus García Méndez, 38, a Mexican immigrant, told the newspaper that he lost his savings from 10 years of work and that he did not know how or whether he would be able to fix the legal situation for himself and his wife, Angélica.
“I am the father of two children,” he said. “It is not fair that we suffer this situation, but at least we know that Reyes will not hurt more people.”