During the government shutdown, possibly during a fit and fever of hope, the President announced that when the government reopened, passing immigration reform legislation (a bill passed earlier this year in the Senate) would be priority number one. Upon signing the bill to reopen the government (and before the Panda-cam could be flipped on) the President, in the throes of victory and momentum, again mentioned immigration as a priority.

On its face, the President’s announcement of Jeh Johnson’s appointment to be the next Secretary of Homeland Security seems politically questionable. Why throw your untested nominee who has to prepare for and endure a Senate confirmation process into the middle of an immigration reform fight?

If immigration reform will be pushed by the White House, do not expect an easy Senate confirmation process for Mr. Johnson. Do except him to be peppered with questions from the anti-reform crowd. Do expect a hold placed on his nomination as leverage for amendments to the bill.

Although a fairly obscure figure among homeland security denizens, Johnson’s time at the Defense Department demonstrates his knowledge of national security law and experience with weighty security policy issues. His only weakness may be a lack of executive branch leadership experience. (Secretaries Tom Ridge and Janet Napolitano were both governors. And Secretary Michael Chertoff ran the crimes division at the Justice Department and prosecuted terrorism cases, in addition to being recognized as one of the most brilliant legal minds in jurisprudence today.)

Because Johnson does not appear to have much of a history in the citizenship or border control policy arenas, questions will focus on how he will implement the law. These questions will be laced with accusations that President Obama has disregarded his current obligations under the law regarding illegal immigrants (given the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program) and a waning focus on preventing illegal border crossings. This will make the process all the more difficult for Johnson.

Yet, how does this White House move forward on an important homeland security issue without a leader at DHS? More than a dozen senior positions at DHS remain vacant. Without a leader at the helm of DHS (the person responsible for border enforcement and citizenship regulations), the push for legislation may appear premature and not well organized.

While head-scratch worthy on its face, this appointment appears to be the first, and a necessary, step towards passage of the President’s immigration plan. Considering the confirmation process in this volatile political climate, it could be a difficult one and the first battle to be fought to enact reform.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More