Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano -- a member of President Obama's Cabinet since the start of his administration -- is leaving to become president of the University of California system.
Her departure comes as President Obama tries to move a massive immigration overhaul with a divided Congress struggling to find common ground on how to deal with the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally.
Obama lauded Napolitano in a statement, saying her portfolio had included "some of the toughest challenges facing our country." He said she had worked "around the clock" to respond to natural disasters, including the Joplin tornado and Hurricane Sandy.
And he said that "since day one, Janet has led my administration’s effort to secure our borders, deploying a historic number of resources, while also taking steps to make our immigration system fairer and more consistent with our values."
In a statement, Napolitano called her four years at Homeland Security "the highlight of my professional career."
She said the department had "worked together to minimize threats of all kinds to the American public." She said the agency had improved the safety of travelers, as well as "implemented smart steps that make our immigration system more fair and focused while deploying record resources to protect our nation’s borders; worked with states to build resiliency and make our nation’s emergency and disaster response capabilities more robust; and partnered with the private sector to improve our cybersecurity."
Napolitano had her share of critics, but took a hard line on immigration enforcement and never became much of a partisan lightning rod for the administration. Indeed, Republican Sen. John McCain said his fellow Arizonian had served "with honor" in "one of the toughest and most thankless jobs in Washington."
McCain said the two had had disagreements, but that he never "doubted her integrity, work ethic or commitment to our nation's security."
And Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, praised Napolitano's work, but pointedly observed that "her 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."
The head of the department's crucial Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, has previously announced plans to step down at the end of July. A memo Morton wrote has come under criticism from immigration advocates and the American Immigration Lawyers Association last fall said only a fraction of hundreds of thousands of cases reviewed were granted any kind of reprieve.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein -- who noted she was looking forward to a new constituent -- said Napolitano is "both smart and competent—qualities she has demonstrated as Secretary of Homeland Security, an enormous organization with 22 departments and more than 240,000 employees."
Feinstein, a California Democrat, said Napolitano's support for immigration reform "particularly the bipartisan Senate bill --aided its strong 68-vote passage in the Senate."
But not everyone praised her tenure. Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declared that it was "defined by a consistent disrepect for the rule of law" and he specifically cited what he called her "aggressive non-enforcement" of immigration laws.The Los Angeles Times notes the choice of the Obama Cabinet member and former governor of Arizona for the schools post, is "an unusual choice that brings a national-level politician to a position usually held by an academic." Her appointment also means the 10-campus system will be headed by a woman for the first time in its 145-year history, the newspaper says.
"While some may consider her to be an unconventional choice, Secretary Napolitano is without a doubt the right person at the right time to lead this incredible university. She will bring fresh eyes and a new sensibility - not only to UC, but to all of California," said Sherry Lansing, a University of California regent.A former movie executive, and chair of the university's presidential selection committee, Lansing added that Napolitano "rose to the top" among some 300 potential candidates considered..
LESLEY CLARK and MICHAEL DOYLE