Originally Published in The Washington Post
Katie Shepherd - April 13, 2021
Reyes, 56, was sentenced to more than 20 years in federal prison on Monday after pleading guilty to dozens of charges connected to a sophisticated scheme to con immigrants by filing fraudulent immigration documents and intercepting communications from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to conceal the fraud, all while stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Dozens of Reyes’s victims spoke at a sentencing hearing on Monday about the pain he had caused them and their families.
Carmen Sanchez said her son had been deported to Mexico after paying Reyes to secure legal status for their 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, the Tampa Bay Times reported. “It played on our hopes and feelings.”
His plot dates back to at least 2016, prosecutors said, but may have begun even earlier. That year, Reyes, who lived in Brandon, Fla., began advertising immigration services to Spanish-speaking immigrant communities near the Tampa Bay area. He set up a nonprofit, EHR Ministries Inc., to lure victims “to trust him and not second-guess his expensive services,” prosecutors said.
On the ministry’s website and Facebook page, Reyes described the supposed charity as a “nonprofit religious organization and a registered 501(C) 3 organization with the IRS” and a “certified immigration service provider.”
Reyes also posted photos of two fraudulent degrees that he had framed on his wall: a fake bachelor of science from University of Bridgeport and a phony law degree from the University of Connecticut School of Law. According to emails filed as evidence, neither school had any record of Reyes graduating.
When immigrants and their families contacted Reyes for help navigating their cases for legal status, Reyes would promise to secure driver’s licenses and work permits for about $5,000.
But instead of starting a legitimate legal process, he asked victims to sign blank forms and then created fraudulent asylum claims without informing clients what he was telling immigration officials.
Those forms, which claimed his clients had credible fears of returning to their home nations, automatically initiated interviews and hearings. But Reyes listed inaccurate contact information so he could intercept all the communications from USCIS and the courts. When the immigrants did not show up for required interviews and court dates, removal proceedings were automatically initiated.
Reyes filed at least 225 fraudulent forms and stole at least $411,868, prosecutors said.
At least six of Reyes’s victims were deported and six more received removal-in-absentia orders, according to court records. One client, who is married to a U.S. citizen, may not be able to obtain legal status because of Reyes’s fraud.
“Some client-victims have already lost their life savings and there is no way to estimate the likely thousands of dollars that each victim will have to spend to try to undo the harm that Reyes inflicted on their immigration status,” prosecutors said in a memo.
Because of backlogs in the immigration system, Reyes’s con went undetected for years and many of his clients were able to obtain driver’s licenses and work permits before the fraudulent documents were discovered by officials. Many of his victims spent years building lives in Florida without realizing that they had been robbed and potentially set up to be deported.
By the time the fraud was discovered, many of the victims were facing financial despair and insurmountable immigration complications.
“For vulnerable immigrants struggling to gain a foothold in a new country, the sudden loss of $5,000 can be catastrophic,” prosecutors said.
All the while, Reyes spent the money he collected from immigrants on a “lavish lifestyle” that included designer clothes, spa treatments, expensive furniture and pricey jewelry, prosecutors said. He paid his girlfriend’s rent and gave her an “allowance” of $500 every month. In photos, Reyes flaunted wads of cash he had collected from immigrant clients.
When victims began to realize Reyes’s deception, he would sometimes threaten them, prosecutors said. Reyes sent messages to friends boasting about turning his clients in to immigration authorities.
“I reported the incident to ICE and gave them addresses and they did the rest,” he wrote in one message filed as evidence in the case. “Taught them not to mess with me. … ICE raided their house … took them all.”
In another message, Reyes called his victims “pieces of garbage” and “stupid a-- people.”
In May 2019, an investigation published by Univision Tampa Bay first exposed Reyes’s scam and spurred an official probe into the impostor attorney’s practice. Around that time, immigration officials also noticed a pattern in Reyes’s fabricated forms, prosecutors said.
According to prosecutors, Reyes had a prior criminal history that included 12 convictions for check and monetary instrument fraud and seven convictions for grand theft. He had previously been caught writing bad checks to buy a house, using another person’s Social Security number to obtain a loan and writing checks to himself using a stolen checkbook.
Federal Judge Virginia Covington on Monday sentenced Reyes to 20 years and 9 months in federal prison followed by 36 months of supervised release.