DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano is tentatively scheduled to testify before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee about DHS immigration enforcement policies on May 6, 2009. Given Secretary Napolitano’s novel interpretations of federal law, the Heritage Foundation will be posting a series of questions (and suggested answers) for the Secretary.

Question # 4: The Obama Administration has recently announced new efforts to tackle the drug cartel problem on the southern border. Will this new emphasis on drug cartels mean a lesser emphasis on the problem of illegal immigration and have the effect of curtailing immigration enforcement efforts?

Approximately 11 million illegal aliens live in the United States. About 375,000 people enter the U.S. illegally through gaps in the southern border each year. Once in the U.S., illegal aliens often do not feed the tax system, but put a major strain on government services, such as for health care and education. Particularly hard-hit are state and local governments, which often bear the burden of footing the bill. Illegal aliens in California have cost the state between $9 billion and $38 billion in public services. The state of Texas has estimated that the bill for illegal immigrant hospital care was as much as $1.3 billion in 2006.

The Pew Hispanic Center noted that the heightened enforcement incited worry among illegal immigrants and could have induced many to leave the country on their own. Most importantly, the study notes that, for the first time in decades, the number of incoming illegal immigrants is less than the number of immigrants entering the country as legal permanent residents.

The increase in illegal immigrants, however, is not solely due to undocumented people crossing the border. A significant portion of illegal immigrants in the United States is comprised of individuals who entered the country with valid visas but failed to leave before their visas had expired. Overstays account for at least 31 percent of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. An aggressive interior enforcement policy is the only method capable of dealing with these illegal immigrants. Failure to do so – even if the border can be totally sealed (which it can’t) – will result in an increase in illegal immigrants who overstay their visa as the demand remains for a reduced supply, thereby driving the pay of that labor higher.

DHS will continue to enforce America’s immigration laws and maintains controlling illegal immigration as one of its top priorities. DHS understands that doing something about illegal immigration is a fundamental part of tackling the drug cartel problems at the southern border. The same people who smuggle drugs into the United States are the same folks smuggling humans into the United States. You cannot tackle one without stopping the other.

For more information on Heritage’s border security and immigration enforcement strategies please see, 15 Steps to Better Border Security: Reducing America’s Southern Exposure, as well as Next Steps for Immigration Reform and Workplace Enforcement.