The incident is part of a broader trend of scams targeting vulnerable populations.
A federal judge on Monday sentenced a man who pretended to be an attorney for scamming undocumented immigrants out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, as various types of fraud are cropping up across the nation.
Elvis Harold Reyes, 56, was sentenced to 20 years and 9 months in federal prison after pleading guilty on Dec. 15, 2020, for mail fraud and aggravated identity theft. His victims lost more than $411,000.
Reyes, who was never a licensed attorney, told his victims he was a pastor, accountant, former immigration official, and even that he formerly worked for the FBI in Puerto Rico, the Tampa Bay Times noted.
He also filed more than 225 asylum applications in which he falsified answers and included fabricated threats of persecution, among other made-up stories, according to a Justice Department press release.
While targeting undocumented immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries, Reyes told them that he could assist them with work permits, permanent residency, asylum, and other services that the immigrants were desperately seeking.
One victim, Juan Carlos Rendón, told the Times that he used all his savings for Reyes's purported immigration services.
"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," he said.
Another victim, Garcia Mendez, told the paper, "It is not fair that we suffer this situation, but at least we know that Reyes will not hurt more people."
Officials and advocates expressed gratitude that Reyes was held to account.
"Posing as an immigration attorney, Reyes targeted hundreds of vulnerable people in the Tampa community with his immigration scam," said Michael Borge, director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Tampa District, in a Monday statement. "USCIS is committed to finding and stopping those who want to cheat the immigration system, and preserving it for those who qualify for immigration benefits."
Ana Lamb, an immigration activist and spokesperson for a local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told the outlet, "This is a victory and a good example that justice is here to protect us against people who want to take advantage."
Across the country, scams have been targeting unsuspecting immigrants.
The Federal Trade Commission warned against fraudulent government websites that are not official and people who charged for free government forms.
"These scams cost more than money. These scams can take away your chance to immigrate legally," the agency said.
The FTC warned against "notarios" who charge immigrants fees but cannot actually provide any legal assistance.
"In the U.S., notarios, notarios públicos and notary publics are not lawyers," the agency stressed. "They cannot help you with immigration."
Some immigrants from Latin American countries fall victim to "notario" fraud because in those countries, a "notario público" is in fact a legal professional, the Miami Herald noted.
"Recently our members have been reporting an increase in notarios who are charging for applications that don’t exist, notarios who are encouraging them to pay exorbitant rates with promises of citizenship based on the Biden proposal," Oscar Londoño, executive director of the immigrant workers' center WeCount!, told the paper.
Other instances of fraud are more similar to that of Reyes's.
In November 2020, Jessica Rubio, 32, was sentenced to six years in federal prison for defrauding immigrants without legal status, according to the DOJ. She posed as an attorney affiliated with the Department of Homeland Security who offered immigration services but scammed victims of nearly $274,000.
"Rubio's fraud scheme targeted people attempting to comply with the immigration laws of the United States and lawfully file paperwork to gain status in the United States. She took advantage of their hopes and dreams," said U.S. Attorney Andrew Birge.
Meanwhile, the FTC is encouraging immigrants to seek help from "accredited representatives," which the government authorizes to give legal immigration aid.
Londoño said his group also is working to combat misinformation surrounding immigration laws.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.