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They lost thousands seeking U.S. residency. Still, they gather to help others.

A group of 32 immigrants formed in the wake of a $1 million fraud scheme. They’ve expanded their mission to deliver groceries and clothes.

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RUSKIN — For now, Ignacio López said, he has his health and a work permit renewable each year that allows him to remain in the United States.

“If I didn’t have all that, the story would be different," said López, 36-year-old husband and father of three who came to the United States illegally more than a decade ago from Mexico.

Related: He was supposed to fix immigration woes, now his clients face deportation

López is one of more than 200 immigrants in the Ruskin and Wimauma areas — farmworkers, maids and laborers — who trusted a man to negotiate for permanent residency on their behalf.

Elvis Harold Reyes, 56, who portrayed himself as an attorney, pastor, accountant and former immigration official, is awaiting trial on federal fraud charges. He faces up to 20 years in prison, accused of stealing more than $1 million from his victims.

Meantime, López and others among the victims have taken matters into their hands.

Since February, they’ve been working as a group, talking on the phone, sharing text messages and organizing Zoom meetings. They keep one another up to date on the court case and other shared interests, like how to pay the rent. The group’s 32 members have been drawn even closer together as they deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, they’re looking beyond their own challenges, helping other needy men, women and children in their neighborhoods. Last week, they gathered donations from relatives, churches and small businesses and organized the collection and delivery of food and clothing bags.

Ignacio López, a 36-year-old father of three, said he lost $4,000 to a man accused of taking money from immigrants and filing false documents with the government on their behalf. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times]

The group is called LULAC 7267, a chapter of the national Hispanic advocacy group League of United Latin American Citizens.

Thinking their payments would help them stay in the United States, the members now have no idea how their immigration cases will turn out, said Ana Lamb, a local leader of the league.

“They do what they can to help their people,” Lamb said. “It’s not easy to help others when you also have your own legal problems.”

Most of the victims lost money they had been saving for years, said López, a lawn service worker who said Reyes defrauded him of $4,000.

“It has been very hard. We are humble people with family and children.”

Another member of the group, 65-year-old farmworker José Guillén, lost $3,500 to Reyes, he said. He doesn’t know how he’ll recover the money or his efforts to gain legal residency, but he finds comfort working with other victims.

“No one told us that life is easy,” Guillén said. “But I think life is more bearable when friends and honest people support you.”

Reyes made headlines in June when dozens of Hispanic immigrants accused him of fraud, saying he offered citizenship, political asylum and green cards in return for fees of $4,000 to $5,000 each.

A federal grand jury in Tampa indicted him on eight counts of mail fraud, eight counts of making false statements in immigration documents, and nine counts of aggravated identity theft. He is accused of filing 215 fraudulent asylum applications through his EHR Ministries Inc.

Reyes submitted documents to immigration authorities on behalf of his clients, often an asylum application or a “withholding-of-removal protection” as provided for under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, according to the indictment.

But he didn’t inform his victims of the information he was providing — much of it false, inaccurate, and incomplete, the indictment says.

Elvis H. Reyes, 56, is awaiting trial on federal charges he took more than $1 million from immigrants who thought he'd help them gain U.S. residency. [Courtesy]

At first, it seemed like the legal process was working for his clients. Many received a temporary work permit and a driver’s license while authorities reviewed their cases. They believed they were safe.

But as the flaws in their paperwork are discovered, their odds of gaining permanent residency falls and they risk deportation.

The victims were unaware of Reyes’ criminal past — convictions for grand theft, using worthless checks, and aggravated assault. His most recent prison term ended in 2008.

José Guillén (center) lost $ 3,500 with Reyes in his attempt to get a legal residence. Recently he helped Ignacio López (left) and Ana Lamb (right) to distribute clothes in Ruskin. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times]

In March, prosecutors recommended that Reyes be held without bail after he was taken from custody to a local hospital complaining of heart palpitations and lied to hospital staff, in front of agents, by complaining that he had contracted the coronavirus, according to court documents.

Reyes denied making the claim. Prosecutors call him a "pathological liar."

A judge denied the motion and set bail at $25, 000, with conditions: Home detention with an electronic monitoring device, no contact with people involved in the investigation, and outside travel only for medical appointments, substance abuse treatment, attorney meetings and court appearances.

Reyes has been released to await trial.

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