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Illegal immigrants tour New England, telling their stories

Kai Sarmiento stood with the Keeping Families Together Bus Tour at the Haitian Assembly of God in Brockton.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

Kai Sarmiento stood with the Keeping Families Together Bus Tour at the Haitian Assembly of God in Brockton.

BROCKTON — They boarded a bus and traveled to four states, completing a 500-mile loop back to Boston, 10 families carrying their own stories of hiding in the shadows, living under the cloud of deportation and the possibility that their families could be separated at any given time.

“I’m worried about a knock on the door,” said 31-year-old Sandra Gomez, an illegal immigrant from Honduras who lives in Boston with her husband and two children. After stepping off the bus Monday morning and grabbing a breakfast of fruit from a small buffet table inside the Haitian Assembly of God Church on Court Street in Brockton, Gomez told her story.

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She and the other families visited Nashua, New Haven, Providence, Worcester, Brockton, and, at the tour’s last stop, East Boston. They spoke about their plight and the need for immigration changes. The New England Keeping Families ­Together Bus Tour started Saturday morning, leaving from downtown Boston. The tour was organized by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

“It’s been a great chance to share their stories and why it’s important,’’ said Pedro Portillo, a coalition organizer who participated. “The psychological and emotional damage to children and parents when they are separated through deportation is unbelievable.

“We’re trying to empower other families who have been in the shadows for so long, to speak up, to let it be known that they have a struggle that needs to be resolved,” he said. “We are urging everyone to contact their elected official and tell them that now is the time for immigration reform.”

Escaping poverty in Guatemala with a desire to provide for her siblings and mother still there, Gomez crossed the border in Texas in 2004 and headed to Boston, she said. After two years here, she married a naturalized citizen from El ­Salvador and they had a child.

But Gomez learned that she would have to return to ­Guatemala as part of her path to US citizenship. She was told that the wait could take as long as a decade. She decided to risk staying here to keep her family together.

Last year, according to statistics provided by the White House, more than 780,000 people became naturalized citizens, but there are 11 million people who “live in the shadows” as illegal immigrants.

Rosmery Hernandez arrived in the United States from ­Honduras eight years ago, after her parents left that country and sent for her. The 19-year-old graduated from Lynn ­English High School last year, with a 3.4 grade point average while taking honors courses and is now a freshman on scholarship at North Shore Community College in Lynn. Hernandez said she hopes to get a degree in early childhood education.

Hernandez is undocumented but was approved recently for the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which defers action on people who came into the United States illegally as children, provided they meet certain criteria.

“Not having papers is not a conversation you have with your friends in high school,” Hernandez said. “They notice things, ask why I didn’t visit my country, or drive, or have a job.”

Hernandez said her senior year was not what she thought it would be. When the issue of immigration overhaul arose during lunch friends, “It was like, ‘Boom!’ a bomb went off,” she said, referring to her friends’ comments that undocumented families had no place in this country.

“I was just sitting down trying not to cry. I never felt so ­attacked by my own friends, people who sat at my table. We shared time not only in the classroom but outside. I wanted to get out of that room and never go back to school, because I felt so much hate,” she said. Hernandez said she broke off those friendships.

“I have to prepare myself now. I want so much out of life,” she said. “I have the energy to do it, the ambition. I’m young, and now I’m out of the shadows. I feel like nothing in life can stop me from getting what I want.”

Brian Ballou can be reached at bballou@globe.com or on ­Twitter at @globeballou.
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