By John Whitesides and Alana Wise
DES MOINES, Iowa, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called on Monday for an end to raids by U.S. officials to deport undocumented Central American families, saying they were divisive and sowing fear in immigrant communities.
Breaking with President Barack Obama, Clinton condemned the raids carried out by the Department of Homeland Security and released a plan that she said would help protect Central American families seeking asylum.
"I do not think the raids are an appropriate tool to enforce the immigration laws. In fact, I think they are divisive, they are sowing discord and fear," Clinton said at the Iowa Brown and Black forum on minority issues.
Rivals for the Democratic nomination Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley have both spoken out against the raids, and participated in the forum.
Clinton had been slower to distance herself from the policy, though it has been condemned by many immigration groups and Democrats in Congress.
As she spoke at the forum, Clinton's campaign released a statement and paper calling for a stop to the raids.
It also advocated government-funded counsels for all unaccompanied minors in immigration court and a long-term, comprehensive fix to asylum and refugee programs that would include more officers, translators and immigration judges, as well as investment in development in Central America.
"If the United States takes the lead in organizing a regional coalition to respond to this crisis, I believe we can make a serious difference," Clinton said in a statement.
Polls show Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in the November election, is clinging to a narrow lead over Sanders in Iowa, which kicks off the nominating race on Feb. 1. The polls show she trails him in the next state to vote, New Hampshire.
The recent raids pursued families with undocumented members, in what some immigration groups viewed as a response by officials to a deter Central Americans flooding across the boder in the southwest.
Sanders said the United States should be careful in deporting the undocumented back to potentially unstable situations in Central America.
"We have a moral responsibility. What refugee status is about is to make sure that people are not forced to return to communities where their lives may be in danger," he told the forum.
(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)