WASHINGTON -- Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano gave a farewell speech Tuesday to praise her department for its achievements and to defend it -- and herself -- from the criticism over border security, immigration and preparedness that plagued her four years leading the decade-old agency.
"In any disaster or crisis, there are always challenges," Napolitano said at the National Press Club. "Problems arise. The unexpected happens. ... But flexibility and agility aren’t only about being operational. Sometimes they are about establishing common-sense policies and priorities, using the resources you have."
Napolitano announced in July that she would step down and take the helm of the University of California system, and will serve her last day Sept. 6. Her announced departure was met with disappointment from some and "good riddance" from others, those who had long criticized her job performance as lackluster on the border and immigration and overzealous in other ways. The Drudge Report and other conservative sites called her "Big Sis" -- a play on the intrusive government "big brother" phrase -- and left-leaning groups depicted her as the symbol of the Obama administration's record deportations.
Despite the criticism, Napolitano said she appreciated her time as Homeland Security secretary. That's not to say it's been easy, she said.
To her successor, Napolitano said, "You will need a large bottle of Advil."
"Some have said that being the Secretary of DHS is the most thankless job in Washington," she continued. "That's not true. No doubt it is a very big and complex job. It is literally a 24/7 job."
"Yet, as my successor will soon learn, it is also one of the most rewarding jobs there is. What you do here matters to the lives of people all across our great nation, and your decisions affect them in direct, tangible ways."
Her speech was largely a list of achievements and struggles the department faced during her tenure, from the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year to natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy. She called the Boston bombing a "despicable act of violence," but said it showed how the federal government can work with local officials and communities to help improve safety.
"In the perpetrators of that bombing, we saw the worst of humanity: cowardice, hatred, violence, and intolerance," she said. "But on that day, and in the days that followed, something else also emerged: the very best of humanity. Communities banded together, over silent vigils, and a determination to be 'Boston Strong.'"
Her decision to leave in the middle of a contentious fight over immigration reform in Congress was met with a sigh of relief from some, who argued distrust for her management of border security and enforcement was giving Republicans an excuse to oppose measures that gave discretion to her agency. Napolitano has repeatedly testified in Congress and received heat from lawmakers such as Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for supposedly shirking her enforcement responsibilities, an accusation she again denied in her farewell speech.
Calling border security and immigration enforcement "one of the department’s most important missions," Napolitano touted the increased resources sent to the border and the fall in unauthorized crossings. She also said the agency's reforms of immigration enforcement policies to focus more on "criminals, national security and public safety threats, repeat offenders, and egregious immigration violators" had largely been a success.
One of the biggest efforts at prosecutorial discretion on immigration during her tenure was the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows young undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children to apply for temporary relief from deportation concerns. Napolitano praised the program, but reiterated remarks she made on the anniversary of DACA earlier this month: it isn't enough to fix the immigration system.
"DACA, of course, is no substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, which is the only way to fix the longstanding problems with our immigration system," she said. "But it is indicative of our larger approach: to devote historic resources to the border, reorient our enforcement priorities, and build more flexibility into the system. I believe we are a stronger, more effective department because of these changes."
President Obama has not yet named a successor for Napolitano. His nominee for deputy secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, has been slowed by an investigation from the DHS Inspector General's Office over whether the current director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services wrongly fast-tracked a project funded by foreign investors.
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's name has been floated as a potential replacement for Napolitano, but also has plenty of detractors, particularly from his role in the stop-and-frisk policy recently struck down by a judge. He has declined to talk about the potential post.
Napolitano had some advice for her successor, whomever it may be, on the need to work with Congress, develop plans for technology and cyber-security threats, and prepare for natural disasters.
"Looking back over the past four and a half years, I can say that if there is one take-away, one object lesson and core operating principle that I’ve learned and embraced as secretary, it is this," she said. "In a world of evolving threats, the key to our success is the ability to be flexible and agile, and adapt to changing circumstances on the ground –- whether that is across the globe, or here at home."