LAS VEGAS -- The second Democratic candidate to go before a gathering of Latino officials this week, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders dedicated much of his speech to immigration reform saying it's time for the country to stop playing the native born against immigrants.
Sanders' support for immigration reform - an important issue to many Latinos - has been considered too tempered. But on Friday, the last day of the National Assoociation of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials conference, he was bullish on where he stands.
Sanders said too often undocumented workers who cook meals and care for American children are reviled and shunted to the shadows, a situation he called disgraceful.
"It is time to end the politics of division in this country, of politicians playing one group of people against another group, whether it is white against black, male against female, straight against gay or native born against immigrant, that division has got to end," he said.
He also said he opposes tying immigration reform to the building of a border fence and called for a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
"It is not acceptable to me and a growing majority of the American people that millions of people in this country are working extremely hard but they are living in the shadows, and that has got to end," Sanders said.
Sanders is considered an underdog in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but has been rising as a candidate in a field dominated by Hillary Clinton.
Sanders took a swipe at Clinton and her record on immigration views, saying that when tens of thousands of children arrived on the border from Central America and Mexico last spring and summer, there were "so many voices" calling for sending the children back home like a package, "marked return to sender."
During the crisis, Clinton had said children who lacked a legitimate claim to asylum should be sent back to their countries of origin.
"The U.S. has always been a haven for the the oppressed. Is there any group more vulnerable than children?" Sanders said.
Sanders reminded the audience he voted for the Senate's 2013 immigration bill, which he did only after fixes were made to a guest worker provision that he thought would allow for the hiring of cheap labor in place of U.S. workers.
He has supported Obama's executive action programs and said again that he supports expanding Obama's executive action programs that would shield immigrants from deportation and allow them to work. He said that parents not legally in the U.S. and whose children also lack legal status should get similar protection from deportation.
"Until we finally pass comprehensive reform - and I’d very much like to see the House pick up where the Senate left off - we must continue pursuing policies that are humane and sensible and keep families together," Sanders said.
But he also qualified his support, saying it "concerns me very much" about businesses that are pushing for guest worker programs.
"As the Southern Poverty Law Program has documented, guest workers have been routinely cheated on wages, held virtually captive by employers who have seized their documents, forced to live in unspeakably inhumane conditions and denied medical benefits for on the job injuries. That is unacceptable," Sanders said.
In 2007, he introduced Senate legislation to allow Legal Services Corp to represent workers who have been abused by employers and to require employers to reimburse workers for transportation expenses and provide worker compensation inurance, he said to applause.
Sanders told the group he is the son of a Polish immigrant father and had worked to help Florida tomato growers fight exploitation, get fair wages and better living and working conditions.
He touched on other issues including school loan debt and voting rights which brought him heavy cheers.