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Martin O'Malley promises to expand Obama's immigration policies

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley addresses a conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Center for American Progress in the Astor Ballroom of the St. Regis Hotel October 24, 2013 in Washington, DC.

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NEW YORK, New York -- Laying out his plan to revamp the nation's immigration system here on Monday, Martin O'Malley promised to make immigration reform a top priority, and an "economic imperative," as president.

"Comprehensive immigration reform means yes, sure, protecting our borders, protecting public safety but having a path to citizenship for all of those millions of our neighbors who have been caught in the switches," he said, speaking at a roundtable with immigrants and immigration activists at the New York Immigration Action Fund. "The pathway should be the ability to actually find the line that's actually a line and be able to become a citizen in fairly short order."

The Democratic candidate pledged to begin implementing his plan, also outlined in a detailed white paper, on his first day in office. While working with legislators to craft a modernized immigration policy, O'Malley said he would use his executive power to put into place a series of shorter-term reforms that provide "immediate relief' to immigrants already living in the United States.

His proposals include widening the reach of "deferred action," or protection from deportation, and providing work permits to parents of U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents and others with "strong family and community ties," expanding healthcare access for those who already qualify for deferred action through DACA and making it easier for eligible immigrants to apply for and receive lawful permanent resident status or naturalized citizenship.

"More than eight million permanent residents are eligible to naturalize today," O'Malley said, "but the process so very difficult and intimidating that not enough people try."

In his white paper, now a hallmark of the former Maryland governor's policy rollouts, O'Malley proposed lowering the cost of naturalization and directing immigration officials to actively "identify and encourage" immigrants living in the U.S. legally to naturalize.

In addition, O'Malley said he would implement new training and guidelines for border patrol agents, including the use of body cameras and a system for tracking and disclosing complaints against them. He said he would also close "inhumane" detention centers, including temporary facilities on the U.S. border with Mexico, and end the practice of detaining children and families who do not pose a threat to public safety.

"It is not only important for newly arriving American immigrants," he said. "It's important for all of us. Our fight for immigration reform is about bringing more of our neighbors out of the shadow economy and into the full light of an open and inclusive American economy."

O'Malley's immigration reform plan comes on the heels of several other detailed policy pitches he's made in the past two weeks, like his plan to make college debt-free within five years, to make the country run on clean energy by 2050 and to take on Wall Street. When asked by a reporter to describe the differences between his plan and Hillary Clinton's policy on immigration reform, O'Malley would not draw a comparison.

"I'm not aware of what hers might be," he said, before quickly moving on to the next question.

Both Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) spoke out in favor of comprehensive immigration reform on Monday in speeches to the National Council of La Raza, an advocacy group for Hispanic Americans. O'Malley also spoke to the group.

"I will defend President Obama's executive actions and stand up against any attempt to expose Dreamers to exportation," Clinton said Monday. "If Congress continues to refuse to act, as President, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further."

Clinton, who also emphasized immigration reform as a key to economic growth in her own formal policy rollout Monday in New York, has yet to be more specific on her ideas.

O'Malley, who said he purposefully chose New York, the home of the Statue of Liberty, for this particular announcement, is expected to talk more about his immigration plan later this week in early-voting Iowa.