(CNN) - Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley advocated for sympathy for the surge of young Central American immigrants flooding the U.S. southern border, arguing that to turn the children away without due process would be un-American given what violence awaits in their home countries.
"We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death," he told reporters Friday at a National Governors Association meeting in Nashville.
A potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, O'Malley's comments break from those made by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a CNN town hall event last month.
Clinton is seen as the prohibitive Democratic frontrunner in 2016, should she decide to jump in the race.
She told moderator CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the United States needs to “send a clear message, just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay.”
“They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are, because there are concerns whether all of them should be sent back," Clinton said. "But I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families."
The pro-GOP opposition research shop, America Rising, pounced on O'Malley's split with Clinton on immigration, posting audio of his comments to its website and highlighting the two Democrats differing stances on the heated issue.
The Obama administration has asked Congress for nearly $4 billion in emergency funds to help speed up the processing of the child immigrants. But Republicans immediately raised concerns, especially over cost of the measure. And the fact that midterm elections are less than four months away doesn't help.
O'Malley said the children deserve due process under U.S. law.
"They should have their ability to make their case for protection and asylum in the United States," he said.
"I believe that it is contrary to everything that we stand for as a people to try to summarily send back to death, whether it's in famine; death whether it's in the middle of the ocean; death whether it's in a war torn area or death in a place where gangs are the greatest threat to stability and the rule of law and Democratic institutions in this hemisphere."
CNN's Steve Brusk contributed to this report.