WASHINGTON - Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton called Tuesday for a path to citizenship for some of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, drawing a sharp contrast with her Republican foes.
The former secretary of state and ex-first lady called immigration a family and economic issue, and pressed for expanding a programme to help not just immigrant children but their parents as well stay in the US.
She has long backed an overhaul of the US immigration system, especially for youths raised in the United States who dream of coming out of the shadows.
"We can't wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship," Clinton told a roundtable at a Las Vegas high school in some of her most expansive comments on what looks set to be a major talking point in the 2016 race to the White House.
Clinton fired the opening salvo in what promises to be a heated immigration debate on the campaign trail, in an effort to draw out the conservatives' reactions.
"This is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side," she said.
"Make no mistake, today not a single Republican candidate announced or potential is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship, not one.
"When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status."
Her campaign later stressed that "Hillary Clinton has made clear that one of the four 'big fights' driving her campaign will be strengthening families and communities -- and immigration reform is crucial to that fight."
About 27 per cent of the population of Nevada, the state home to Las Vegas, is Hispanic.
Some of the participants in the discussion were undocumented immigrants, people who were only provided temporary visas or whose parents are undocumented.
The hot-button immigration issue is currently stalled in Congress.
Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the large undocumented immigrant population and breaks in the visa quota system make immigration reform crucial.
An overhaul that would have regulated millions of immigrants passed in the then Democrat-held Senate in 2013, but it was blocked in the Republican-majority House of Representatives.
A huge influx of minors from Central America brought the issue back to the fore, with Republicans insisting no reform was possible until the border with Mexico was reinforced.
Obama used an executive order to bypass a hostile Congress and drive through measures to protect about four million undocumented foreigners from deportation in November.
But in February, just before the measures were to go into effect, a Texas judge issued an emergency injunction until a trial on their legality could be held.
Clinton said she backed Obama's approach.
"If Congress continues to refuse to act, as president I will do everything possible under the law to go even further," Clinton said.
Clinton criticised current immigration enforcement and detention policies, saying they need to be "more humane, more targeted and more effective."
"I don't think we should put children and vulnerable people into big detention facilities because I think they're at risk," she said.
But no large-scale legislative reform is expected before the end of Obama's term.