"Sometimes, when major changes occur, there is a tendency to focus on the uncertainty of the future, perhaps at the expense of the urgency of the now," the assistant secretary of policy at the Homeland Security Department, David Heyman, said Friday in an email to his staff following Napolitano's announcement. "This department has seamlessly and professionally negotiated a number of similar changes in the past, and I know a number of you all are veterans of such transitions."
While some of these vacancies have little impact on daily operations around the country, the lack of permanent leadership at the top can have long term effects over policy, said Richard Skinner, the department's former inspector general. There has been no permanent replacement for Skinner since he left two years ago.
Acting officials are always reluctant to make long-term policy calls, said James Ziglar, the last commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was absorbed into the Homeland Security Department in 2003.
"On the administration side, management side, everyone is looking at the person, saying, 'You aren't going to be around very long, so we're going to just hold off doing stuff,'" Ziglar said.
Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the securing of the nation's borders, has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since the George W. Bush administration. President Barack Obama in 2010 exercised his ability to bypass Congress and appoint Alan Bersin as head of CBP. But that appointment was up at the end of 2011. The acting commissioner who replaced Bersin recently retired from government, only to be replaced by another acting commissioner.
Without a Senate-confirmed commissioner of CBP, it will be difficult to put in place and actual border strategy, said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.