Janet Napolitano (Mandel Ngan/Agence France Press) Janet Napolitano (Mandel Ngan/Agence France Press)

Janet Napolitano is stepping down as Homeland Security secretary to take a plum job as president of the University of California. Her departure shouldn’t have an impact on the immigration debate.

Napolitano became the bête noire of the right early in the administration. Certainly she bollixed up an early terrorist incident, the Christmas bomber, by proclaiming the “system worked.” She also raised the ire of conservatives by virtue of a footnote in a Homeland Security report. The Washington Times reported then:

A footnote attached to the report by the Homeland Security Office of  Intelligence and Analysis defines “rightwing extremism in the United States” as including not just racist or hate groups, but also groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority.

“It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single-issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration,” the warning says.

Napolitano subsequently conceded the language was inappropriately broad and apologized to veterans (although not single-issue conservative groups). Nevertheless, the image of a crusader out to get the right stuck.

The real fury however concerned her role, however subordinate, in the Obama administration’s immigration policy, including the president’s unilateral action allowing children brought to the country by illegal immigrant parents to stay here. The inconsistent record of deportations also irked her critics, and her criticism of Arizona’s immigration law (later found to be unconstitutional in part) only made matters worse. Most recently, her department was immersed in a sexual harassment scandal.

In the ongoing immigration debate, conservatives have raised doubts that she and the president could be trusted to enforce border security measures. Her departure deprives immigration critics of a target. If her replacement commands respect from conservatives, immigration reform may be easier.

Napolitano did not come up with DREAM Act policy, nor did she set immigration policy more generally. As with everything else in this administration, she was essentially a functionary whose actions were directed and circumscribed by the White House.

It has been a mistake to vilify Napolitano; that puts undue importance on her departure and replacement. The White House is the source of conservatives’ troubles. No one imagines the next three and a half years will be any different.

Moreover, as I wrote yesterday, the entire argument against immigration reform about not being able to trust the White House is an intellectual cul-de-sac. (David Brooks aptly puts it: “It’s always possible to imagine ways in which a law may be distorted in violation of its intent. But if you are going to use that logic to oppose something, you are going to end up opposing tax reform, welfare reform, the Civil Rights Act and everything else.”)

In short, she had a rocky tenure, but her resignation is largely irrelevant to the immigration debate.Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a ferocious critic of immigration, said in a statement:

Any selection – interim or permanent – to replace Secretary Napolitano must disavow these aggressive non-enforcement directives or there is very little hope for successful immigration reform.

Whoever replaces Secretary Napolitano must restore the rule of law, as well as the morale of ICE officers which has plummeted under her tenure.

That’s silly — he was a vehement opponent of immigration reform and was anxious to kill any passable legislation. He will remain so regardless of who fills Napolitano’s place.