TAMPA — One after another, victims took the stand with tears in their eyes at downtown Tampa’s federal courthouse on Friday afternoon.
They were there to testify at the sentencing of 56-year-old Elvis Harold Reyes, who posed as an immigration lawyer, accountant and preacher to defraud at least 296 undocumented immigrants out of more than $1 million.
Reyes was scheduled to be sentenced Friday, but a long series of witness testimonies forced the court to recess until Monday morning at 9 a.m. so all victims could speak. He faces up to 20 years in prison for mail fraud and a mandatory two years for identity theft, according to federal court records.
Reyes exploited the undocumented community of southern Hillsborough County from 2016 to 2019 by lying about his work history and filing improper paperwork, said federal prosecutor Francis Murray. He charged approximately $5,000 a person on a promise to deliver documents like driver’s licenses, work permits and permanent residency.
But, as testimony revealed, Reyes rarely delivered on his promises. In some cases, he threatened to call immigration officials to deport those who pressed him for the materials they paid for.
The names of the victims who testified Friday were sealed in federal court to protect their identities. They spoke of financial hardship caused by Reyes, some depleting their life savings to pay his fees. Others spoke of betrayal — as Reyes was a preacher to some victims — and of the heartbreak caused by false hope.
All victims who took the stand Friday called for justice.
“The way he presented himself with God at the front, he could have fooled anyone,” said one victim, who was issued an order of deportation because of Reyes’ alleged negligence while filing an asylum claim. “Now I don’t have money and I don’t sleep at night. I know immigration is going to show up at my door and take me any day now.”
The victim was one of six former clients of Reyes who were issued orders of deportation, according to Murray. Five others have already been removed from the country.
Some victims said they fear that they’ll be next.
“I go to work every day and do not know if I will come home to my children,” another victim said in court.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Sara Mieczkowski objected to the approximately $1 million amount which Reyes is accused of defrauding. But she didn’t speak much during the sentencing, which was dominated by victim testimony.
Nearly every victim spoke about the financial hardship they suffered from the fees Reyes charged.
“I suffer from dizziness, depression and anguish because of what that man did to us,” said 33-year-old housekeeper Silvia Vega, who paid Reyes $4,500. Vega was one of dozens of people who protested outside the courthouse in downtown Tampa on Friday ahead of Reyes’ sentencing. “I have been hospitalized several times and now I owe thousands of dollars. I gave him all my savings.”
Vega said she met Reyes three years ago through a common friend. She said he promised her political asylum and a green card, so she could live with her husband and two children without fear of deportation.
“We believed him because we only want stability for ourselves and our kids,” said Vega. “We just want to work and take care of our families.”
Since “being scammed” by Reyes, Vega said she joined LULAC 7267, a chapter of the national Hispanic advocacy group League of United Latin American Citizens. Members of the group joined protesters Friday to make the group swell to roughly 50 strong around 1 p.m.
“We want this to be a precedent for people who take advantage of our community,” said Ana Lamb, a spokeswoman for the group. “The money can be recovered with hard work, but the emotional and legal stability of our families is priceless”.
Olga Beatriz Rodriguez, 52, a Guatemalan immigrant, said she met Reyes as a leader of a local church. She said he promised her a green card and the opportunity to see her parents again for the first time in nearly two decades.
“He earned my trust and I even helped him clean his house twice,” she said. “I called my father and he was so happy, he was jumping for joy. But at the end of the day, what Reyes did was a fraud and he deceived us all.”