LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday the flood of child immigrants overwhelming officials along the country's border with Mexico could be stopped by sending them back immediately.
"We want to stop the flow," the five-term Republican senator told a gathering of county leaders from across Kentucky. "It's really not that complicated. Secure the border, treat the children humanely and return them immediately."
McConnell's comments drew applause from the crowd of judge-executives, magistrates and commissioners from Kentucky's counties.
"I guarantee you it will work," he said.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have come since October, overwhelming Border Patrol facilities in South Texas. Without more beds, the Homeland Security Department says immigrants caught entering the country illegally will continue to be released while awaiting their deportation and asylum hearings. Right now, they are detained only if there is a place to house them.
Many are fleeing gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, drawn by rumors that once in the U.S., they could stay.
McConnell also said an existing law that calls for the return of such unaccompanied minors from Mexico or Canada should apply to young immigrants from other countries.
"The message is probably going out all over the world — if you're in an unhappy situation ... just get your kid in here somehow and they'll be there forever," McConnell said.
Asked how the senator's proposal would be put into practice, McConnell spokesman Robert Steurer said the Homeland Security Department "regularly repatriates foreign nationals, and we hope they will be accelerating this process."
McConnell also criticized President Barack Obama's request for $3.7 billion in emergency funding for the border crisis.
Much of the request would go to the Department of Health and Human Services, he said, "leading me to have the suspicion that they expect these kids to be here for a long time."
McConnell's speech before the politically influential group of county officials comes as he faces a tough re-election challenge in November against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is Kentucky's secretary of state.
Grimes' campaign manager, Jonathan Hurst, said the humanitarian crisis at the border happened because of Congress' inability to pass immigration reform. Grimes regularly portrays McConnell as a chief obstructionist in Congress.
"In the short term, we should take steps to protect the innocent children and crack down on the illegal criminal organizations that profit off the trafficking of these children," a Grimes campaign statement said.
Grimes appeared before the same group Thursday. She declined to say how she would vote on Obama's spending request, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
She spoke of the need for a secure border and an "earned pathway to citizenship," the newspaper reported.
In his speech, McConnell touted his Senate seniority and said no state has fared worse from Obama's policies than Kentucky — part of his strategy to link Grimes to the Democratic president.
"She's a new face," McConnell said. "But she's a new face for the status quo, for no change at all. A new face for the same majority leader, a new face to support the president."