MUSCATINE, Iowa -- Sen. Bernie Sanders teed off on Donald Trump during a campaign event here Friday focused on Latino issues, accusing the Republican presidential front-runner of “using racism and demagoguery” when discussing immigration policy.

Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who has emerged as the leading challenger to Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination, said Trump and other Republicans have been scapegoating immigrants to deflect attention from other issues facing the country.

“You would think that an honest political discussion would say, ‘How do we address those issues?’” Sanders told about two dozen people invited to what was billed as a roundtable discussion. “But what certain candidates like Trump are trying to do is to say to Americans, ‘We have problems, do you know who the cause of the problems is? It’s all the immigrants.’”

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“Well, to the best of my knowledge, undocumented people did not cause the greed and the illegal behavior on Wall Street, which destroyed this economy,” Sanders continued. “To the best of my knowledge, undocumented people in this country did not cause the fact that we have not raised the minimum wage. … So what they are doing, are using, in this case, Latinos, as simply a whipping boy to deflect attention from the real issues facing America.”

A spokeswoman for Trump declined to comment. The real-estate-mogul-turned-presidential candidate has put forward an immigration policy proposal that calls for an end to birthright citizenship and opposes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Earlier in the campaign, Trump drew fire for saying Mexico was sending “criminals” and “rapists” into the United States and for describing Mexicans coming over the border "like water."

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“We can have a debate in this country about immigration reform, and people can have different points of view, but it is absolutely unacceptable for presidential candidates like Donald Trump to be using racism and demagoguery against a group of people,” Sanders said. “This is unacceptable. This is the year 2015, and I would have hoped that in this country we would have gone beyond this type of racism.”

Sanders, who represents a state that is 95 percent white, has been attempting in recent weeks to more actively reach out to minority communities with an eye toward nominating contests after Iowa and New Hampshire, where they make up a larger share of the Democratic electorate.

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Among Democrats, the battle for Latino voters has been in the spotlight of late. Clinton was campaigning Friday in Puerto Rico, a territory that former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, a fellow Democratic candidate, has also visited.

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During Friday’s event here, Sanders described how his father had come to the United States from Poland and pledged to push for comprehensive immigration reform if elected president.

“We need legal status for undocumented people in this country,” he said. “We need a path toward citizenship, and I will fight toward that path. … I think the United States government should not be in the business of separating families.”

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Sanders also pitched several plans that he talks about frequently with broader audiences, including making tuition free at public colleges and universities and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Sanders is in the midst of a three-day swing through Iowa, where a recent poll showed him closing in on Clinton in the first nominating state. On Thursday, he drew sizable crowds in Grinnell, Outtumwa and Burlington.

Later Friday, he has events planned at the Meskwaki Tribal Center in Tama and in Cedar Rapids. While in Cedar Rapids, Sanders also plans to join an “informational picket” sponsored by labor unions.

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