The Democratic-controlled Senate has passed an ambitious and broad immigration bill, which includes doubling the size of the Border Patrol to more than 40,000 agents, offering a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally and increasing the number of people who come to the United States as temporary workers. House Republicans have vowed to fight the bill, arguing that the border isn't secure and that must come first.
"Whoever is in the position is always looking over their shoulder, wondering if they are going to have a job," Noorani said.
The position of the department's chief privacy officer is also filled by an acting official at a time when evaluating and protecting privacy will be critical for any new immigration laws likely to include deciding who among the millions of immigrants living the country illegally gets to stay.
The department's second most senior position has been without a confirmed leader since Jane Holl Lute left in April. Rand Beers, who has been the acting deputy secretary, is poised to take over the department while the Senate considers Alejandro Mayorkas to fill the second top job permanently.
But Mayorkas' confirmation would also create another vacancy, this time at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That agency is responsible for policing who gets immigration benefits, including green cards, and is likely to have a significant role in implementing any immigration reform that addresses the millions of immigrants already living in the United States illegally.
And not having a permanent inspector general to serve as the department's watchdog is a significant problem, said Skinner, who once served in an acting capacity in that role.
"The longer that position stays vacant, the more vulnerable the department becomes," he said.
Career government employees need leaders who have the backing of the president, said Prakash Khatri, the former ombudsman at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
"When they know there's an acting head of the office, generally the careerist will not make any major moves," Khatri said. "At a time when we have major reform pending, that is the last thing we want."