TAMPA - After living in the shadows for 20 years, Guatemalan immigrant Silvia Águila thought that she would finally be able to get a work permit and a residence for herself and her Mexican husband.
Águila had entrusted her case to Elvis Harold Reyes, who said he was an immigration lawyer and would have no problem solving the legal status problem and that she should have no fear of deportation.
“He just told me that I had to give him an advance of $3,500. And that’s what I did,” she said. “He made me believe that everything would be fine.”
What Águila, 39, did not know was that she was being deceived and that Reyes was not an attorney. And that her name was being added to a large list of immigrant families in Plant City, Tampa, Clearwater and Wimauma who believed in Reyes would end their legal hardships.
Reyes, who also portrayed himself as a pastor, accountant and former immigration official while stealing money from undocumented immigrants, was sentenced Monday to 20 years and 9 months in federal prison.
Reyes, 56, of Brandon, had pleaded guilty four months ago to charges of mail fraud and aggravated identity theft in connection with a scheme that affected dozens of Hispanic families. Reyes filed fraudulent asylum applications and other forms in return for fees of up to $5,000.
U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Hernandez Covington said Reyes preyed on the dreams and hopes of people who were looking to legalize their status.
The sentence was handed down after a four-hour hearing where at least 25 victims of Reyes, including Águila, recounted how Reyes gained their trust and made them believe that he could get them work permits, permanent residence cards, driver’s licenses and political asylum. Others had testified on Friday.
According to the authorities, Reyes filed more than 225 fraudulent applications, causing his victims to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars combined.
Reyes spent the proceeds on travel, expensive jewelry, cosmetic procedures and gifts for his girlfriend.
Jesus García Méndez, a Mexican immigrant, said that he not only lost his savings from more than 10 years of work, but now he doesn’t know how or when he will be able to fix the legal situation for he and his wife, Angélica.
“I am the father of two children. They need me, they have the right to be with their parents,“ said García Méndez, 38. “It is not fair that we suffer this situation, but at least we know that Reyes will not hurt more people.”
Another victim, Juan Carlos Rendón, said Reyes had not only told him that he was an experienced immigration attorney and local pastor, but also that he had worked for the FBI in Puerto Rico.
“I used all my savings...” said Rendón. “I did it for my family, for our future, and in the end that man did nothing. He left us on the street. Now he has to serve his sentence. "
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Carmen Sanchez, another woman affected by the fraud, said her son was deported to Mexico due to Reyes’ deceptions.
Sanchez said Reyes had offered to get legal status for his family.
“When we complained to him, Reyes said that he was going to call the immigration authorities to come to our houses to look for us,” Sanchez said. “It played on our hopes and feelings.”
When an investigation revealed Reyes’s scheme, Reyes tried to obstruct justice by having a friend wipe his computers, according to the authorities.
Outside of federal court, dozens of immigrant families waited patiently for the sentence against Reyes to be announced.
Ana Lamb, a local activist and spokeswoman for a chapter of the national Hispanic advocacy group League of United Latin American Citizens, said the sentence should be a lesson for those who want to take advantage of the conditions of humble people.
“This is a victory and a good example that justice is here to protect us against people who want to take advantage,” said Lamb.
The Court deferred consideration of victim restitution to a later date.