Janet Napolitano’s departure as head of the Homeland Security Department leaves President Barack Obama seeking a successor to run an agency at the center of his second-term push to revamp U.S. immigration law.
Napolitano, who has been in the job since the day after Obama took office in 2009, said yesterday she’s resigning to become president of the University of California system. In the cabinet position, her duties included overseeing border security and prevention of terror attacks -- issues that often put her at odds with congressional Republicans.
Obama yesterday praised Napolitano’s work protecting the U.S. against terrorism, responding to natural disasters and supervising the nation’s immigration system.
“The American people are safer and more secure thanks to Janet’s leadership,” he said in a statement released by the White House.
Napolitano, 55, will stay at her post until early September, White House spokesman Jay Carney said. No replacement has been named.
Her decision to leave was announced as the administration intensifies its campaign for a broad restructuring of the country’s immigration laws and deals with the aftermath of the April Boston Marathon bombings -- the highest-profile act of terrorism on U.S. soil since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that led lawmakers to create the homeland security agency.
Napolitano has played a leading role in both the debate over immigration rules and the response to the Boston bombings - - a point reiterated by lawmakers who pressed the administration to quickly appoint a successor when she departs in September.
Though Carney called it “far too premature” to “speculate about successors,” New York Senator Charles Schumer suggested Obama nominate Ray Kelly, the New York Police Commissioner, to the position.
“Ray Kelly would be a great DHS Secretary, and I have urged the White House to very seriously consider his candidacy,” Schumer, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, said in a statement.
Kelly and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an independent, praised Napolitano in statements. Bloomberg said she “played a vitally important role in protecting our country from terrorist attacks” and in supporting funding for New York security efforts. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Napolitano, a Democrat, left Arizona in the middle of her second term as the state’s governor after Obama named her to become the country’s third Homeland Security secretary.
The agency has a broad mandate with components that include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Transportation Security Administration. The job put Napolitano at the point position on issues from disasters and foiled terrorism plots to a prostitution scandal in the Secret Service and whether small knives would be allowed on airliners.
She has been among the top administration officials lobbying lawmakers to approve the comprehensive restructuring of the U.S. immigration system that is a top policy priority for Obama. Backers of the changes are trying to overcome opposition from some House Republicans to a measure passed by the Senate on a bipartisan vote.
Her role in immigration and national security issues made Napolitano a target for congressional Republicans. She has sparred with lawmakers over border security and the decision not to deport younger undocumented immigrants. She also faced off with the Republicans over the scope and origin of the terror threats confronting the country.
Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said Napolitano’s tenure was “defined by a consistent disrespect for the rule of law,” referring to an administration directive on suspending deportation of young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children by their parents. That has been a “significant obstacle” to winning support for immigration legislation, Sessions said yesterday in a statement.
Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Napolitano’s departure “is a substantial addition to the growing list of unfilled key leadership positions within the department, and the administration should move swiftly to fill the gaping holes in its management.”
Napolitano had been mentioned as a potential replacement for Attorney General Eric Holder, should he decide to step down. Holder has said he has no intention of leaving the Justice Department in the near future.
Napolitano was recommended for her new job by a unanimous vote of the University of California system’s 10-member search committee, according to Regent Sherry Lansing. The full board of regents plans to act on the nomination on July 18.
“Secretary Napolitano is a distinguished and dedicated public servant who has earned trust at the highest, most critical levels of our country’s government,” Lansing said in a statement yesterday. “She has proven herself to be a dynamic, hard-working and transformative leader.”
As president of the 10-campus system, Napolitano would oversee 234,000 students, about 208,000 faculty and staff, and an annual budget of more than $24 billion. There are more than 1.6 million alumni.
Prior to her gubernatorial election, Napolitano served as Arizona’s attorney general. She was also a U.S. attorney based in the state.
A native of New York, Napolitano graduated from Santa Clara University in California’s Silicon Valley and received her law degree from the University of Virginia.