TAMPA — They came to him with dreams of finally getting their immigration papers in order and stepping out of the shadows. Elvis Harold Reyes promised he could help.
A community of Mexican laborers in Plant City believed he was a lawyer. He told them he could fix their immigration statuses for a fee, though he has no legal qualifications. When things didn't work out, they said he stopped answering his phone or threatened them.
Then rumors began to fly that people who had gone to Reyes were receiving deportation orders.
"I feel afraid because I don't know what is going to happen with me and my kids," said Jesus Garcia Mendez, a 36-year-old father of six. Reyes helped him submit an application last year, he said.
Now, an investigation by Univision Tampa Bay has spurred the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to look into the alleged scam. More than 100 people have come forward since last week.
"Preying on the most vulnerable in our County will never be tolerated. Period," the agency tweeted in English and Spanish.
However, this kind of fraud is rampant in immigrant communities and rarely receives attention from law enforcement agencies, said Orlando immigration attorney Ksenia Maiorova of the American Immigration Lawyers Association of Central Florida.
She was surprised — and encouraged — to learn the Sheriff's Office was tackling the issue. In her three years as chair of the association's unlicensed practice of law committee, Maiorova said she hasn't been able to get cases like this prosecuted.
"We see individuals who have been doing this out in the open for a decade or more, with hundreds or thousands of victims," she said. "Unfortunately, we cannot get any sort of action on it from any agency."
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Here's how the scam works: A person who speaks the same language as the community poses as a lawyer and promises a quick solution to immigration woes in exchange for a large fee.
The person submits documents to the government on behalf of their "clients" — often an asylum claim — and never explains the risks.
The process may appear to work — at first. The client might not qualify for asylum but could still get a work permit and a temporary driver's license while the government evaluates the claim, which can take years. The unwitting clients think this means they have legal papers, unaware they have exposed themselves to the government with a false or weak claim and are living on borrowed time.
By the time a deportation order arrives, the clients' problems are often compounded by having signed a fraudulent asylum claim. That means they can never receive any kind of immigration relief.
What about their so-called lawyer? Usually long gone with the clients' money.
No arrest has been made in regard to these complaints. Reyes' lawyer, Michele Rayner-Goolsby, said he would not be able to comment during the investigation. But Reyes told Univision Tampa Bay the allegations are false.
"I am not a lawyer and I've never said at any moment that I'm a lawyer," he said through an intercom before telling reporters to get off his property.
A web page for the real estate agency Century 21 Beggins Enterprises said Reyes works as a sales associate and previously served as a police officer in Puerto Rico for six years. He moved to Florida in 1995 and was ordained as a minister, it said. The page was taken offline Wednesday.
Reyes has a long criminal record in Florida, including felony convictions for grand theft, using worthless checks and aggravated assault. His last prison stint ended in 2008.
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Garcia is originally from Mexico and had worked construction jobs in Florida for over a decade when he heard about Reyes' services. He has five kids in the United States and one in Mexico. Many of his friends and family were signing up with Reyes, so Garcia jumped at the chance.
He and his wife had never run into any problems with immigration authorities. Life was good in their corner of east Hillsborough, with cookouts at his home and family trips to the beach on his days off.
Yet he dreamed of better jobs and finally driving his kids to school without a knot of fear in his stomach. One day he might even be able to help his daughter in Mexico legally immigrate, he thought.
"It was the opportunity to finally fix things," he said.
Garcia said he met Reyes at a friend's house about a year ago. Reyes had a reassuring smile, wore a suit and said he preferred to stop by instead of meeting at his office because he was so busy. Everyone called him abogado, or lawyer.
Reyes promised a driver's license and work permit would arrive within months. He told them to use his address instead of their own to be safer, Garcia and other victims say. He and his wife took their fingerprints and filled out the paperwork. They sent photos and their children's Social Security numbers to the government. Reyes charged them $5,000.
But the cases went nowhere. Eventually, rumors leaked out — instead of receiving work permits and a path to permanent residency, people who had gone to Reyes were getting deportation orders. Univision Tampa Bay profiled a man who was deported after going to Reyes.
It dawned on Garcia and his friends that they were at risk. He and others reported Reyes to the Sheriff's Office. Now Garcia is working with a licensed immigration lawyer to assess his options for staying in the country.
He has no hope of recovering the $5,000.
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Tampa immigration lawyer Chelsea Nowel said if the victims move fast to get representation, they may still have a chance to gain legal status.
"Judges are appalled by this illegal practice of law," she said. If there's evidence of malpractice, she said they'll often work with attorneys to reopen cases. But other lawyers say the chances of success are slim.
The Sheriff's Office encouraged people to come forward and report if they believe they've been the victim of an immigration scam. "Our job as a local law enforcement agency is to protect all people, regardless of their immigration status," Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said in a statement.
One woman told Univision Tampa Bay that Reyes scammed her and threatened her family in 2016. She reported it, but he continued to operate.
That's not surprising, Maiorova said.
"It's literally quite impossible to get enforcement," she said, which worsens the problem. "The public has the opinion that, if it was illegal, people wouldn't be doing it."
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has set up a hotline in Spanish and English for those who have been victimized by this or similar immigration scams: (813) 247-8494.
Times staff writer Myriam Warren contributed to this report. Contact Kavitha Surana at email@example.com or 727-893-8149. Follow @Ksurana6