Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called on Tuesday for undocumented immigrants to be allowed to gain U.S. citizenship, courting Latino voters and drawing a line between herself and Republican rivals for the White House in 2016.
"We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship. Now, this is where I differ from everybody on the Republican side," Clinton told a group of students at a high school in Nevada.
The Latino vote is likely to be crucial in the 2016 election, especially in potential swing states such as Nevada and Colorado. Republicans are seeking to win a bigger slice of the Latino vote than in 2012 when they were perceived by many Hispanics as being too tough on illegal immigration
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a Republican who is weighing a White House bid, has proposed legal status for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants that falls short of full citizenship, although he has not ruled out some way for them to become Americans eventually.
Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the 2016 presidential election, said Republicans were offering "second-class status."
"When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status and we should never forget who this debate is about," she said at Rancho High School.
The school is approximately 70 percent Hispanic and less than 10 miles north of the Las Vegas strip of casinos, a magnet for workers from all over the world.
Another potential Clinton rival, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, played a prominent role in drafting a broad immigration bill in 2013 that ultimately failed in Congress.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has since backed off a comprehensive reform effort in favor of a more piecemeal approach.
Clinton said her immigration reform policy would ensure that illegal immigrants who paid a fine, learned English and got in line could earn U.S. citizenship without risk of being deported.
She pledged to preserve and expand executive action on immigration by President Barack Obama, who let millions of undocumented immigrants stay in the United States legally and get work permits.
"If Congress continues to refuse to act, as president I would do everything possible under the law to go even further," she said.
Clinton said she wanted both "Dreamers" - children who were brought to the United States illegally by their families - and their parents to be allowed to stay legally in America.
Students at the school applauded and shouted "Yes," when the former first lady made a point they agreed with. Nevada hosts one of the earliest Democratic nominating contests next year and it will be a key test of Clinton's ability to win over Hispanics and other voters.
((Reporting by Amanda Becker; Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Ken Wills)
Watch footage of Clinton's remarks, as posted online on Tuesday, below.