Democratic presidential candidate and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley speaks during the National Council of La Raza annual conference in Kansas City on Monday. (Dave Kaup/Reuters)

Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley says that if elected he would take expansive executive actions to limit deportations and make other changes to what he calls the nation’s “inhumane” immigration system.

The plans of the former Maryland governor, which include forging a consensus with Congress on longer-term reforms, are outlined in a eight-page white paper that he formally unveiled Tuesday morning in Manhattan, where he held a roundtable discussion with a group of immigrants and immigration advocates.

“We need to reform a system that is callous, irrational, inhumane, and unjust by providing immediate relief to millions of New Americans and fighting for immigration reform to bring our neighbors out of the shadows,” O’Malley said at the event.

O’Malley’s proposals are the latest in a flurry of progressive policy initiatives he has offered as he tries to gain a foothold in a Democratic contest in which he lags far behind both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in polls from early nominating states.

O’Malley’s ideas on immigration were offered at a time when the topic has become a flashpoint in the presidential race, thanks largely to disparaging comments about Mexico from Republican businessman Donald Trump, whose candidacy was cited several times Tuesday by O’Malley and other speakers.

Steve Choi, executive director of the New York State Immigrant Action Fund, which hosted Tuesday’s event, said strong leadership on immigration issues is crucial as “the Donald Trumps of the world have come out of the woodwork.”

In his white paper, O’Malley expresses support for states and localities that have limited their cooperation with the federal government in detaining undocumented immigrants for deportation. Controversy over so-called “sanctuary cities” has come to the fore in the wake of a recent murder of a San Francisco woman by a man who had been deported multiple times.

O’Malley also pledges to use executive action to significantly cut back on the use of immigrant detention centers, where he says conditions are “deplorable,” and to expand access to health care for an estimated 5 million immigrants who have been denied benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

In the short term, O’Malley says he would further expand the use of “deferred action” to limit deportations of parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, as well as all individuals who have “strong family and community ties.”

The approach, which was embraced by President Obama, has been put on hold by the courts. O’Malley says he is confident Obama will prevail and executive discretion can be broadened.

The former governor says he would also make it easier for immigrants who have lived in the United States illegally to get green cards without first having to leave the country for a period of years. He would do that by expanding a waiver that allows immigrants to stay if returning would cause them to experience “extreme hardship.”

While O’Malley says he would move forward aggressively without Congress, he is pledging to work with the legislative branch on comprehensive immigration reform, which he argues will “help all families – by lifting wages, creating new jobs, growing our economy, expanding our tax base, and improving standards for all workers.”

O’Malley asserts that he is well-positioned to lead the effort, citing legislation he supported in Maryland to allow undocumented immigrants to receive in-state college tuition rates and have access to driver’s licenses.

“I intend to make this a national issue,” he during the roundtable, speaking of a promised emphasis during his campaign on immigration reform. “It’s holding us back from building an economy that works for everyone.”

Among those who spoke during O’Malley’s roundtable was Maria Abeja, who left two children behind in Mexico and has been making a living by cleaning homes. Under current law, she could face deportation.

Speaking through a translator, Abeja said she just wants to be able to work and make money to support her family.

“We’re good people,” she said. “We don’t want to be a drain on this country.”