But immigrant-rights groups note that only 2 percent of pending immigration cases have been closed since the "prosecutorial discretion" program was implemented, as the New York Times reported in June, and that families are still being separated by deportation
ICE also announced in December that it is scaling back a federal program called 287(g) that allows some local law enforcement officers to act as immigration enforcement agents. The program was unpopular with immigrant-rights groups, who said it led to racial profiling and mistrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities.
Napolitano reportedly developed the framework for what became the final version of the deferred action program, which allows certain young undocumented immigrant to apply for a temporary reprieve from deportation. Since it was enacted last summer, over 102,000 people have been granted a two-year stay from deportation under the program and can apply for work permits, according to USCIS statistics.
Despite her department's focus on enhanced immigration enforcement, her record hasn't been enough to satisfy many Republicans in Congress who could play a key role in a debate over a comprehensive immigration reform package.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, in August accused ICE of "cooking the books to achieve their so-called 'record' deportation numbers for illegal immigrants," and that deportations have actually fallen during Obama's first term.
House Republicans sparred with Napolitano over deferred action during a July hearing over the "prosecutorial discretion" program for deportations and deferred action.
"That completely and totally destroys the constitutional framework of our government," then-Rep. Ben Quayle (R-Ariz.) said of the administration's policies.
Immigration restrictionists fear that keeping Napolitano indicates that Obama will push for a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
"I think it shows that this administration plans to continue its existing policy, which is a state of perpetual amnesty," said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Immigration advocates believe that Napolitano's strength will lie in attracting moderate Democrats and Republicans who might be on the fence about supporting an immigration bill.
"Members who are against immigration reform will never be satisfied, but what the administration can do is target members in the middle," said Noorani.
Added Johnson: "Arguments [from restrictionists] are going to look a lot more political because under Secretary Napolitano, it's clear that we have been doing enforcement first."
UPDATE: Not every immigrant-rights group cheered Napolitano's decision to stay. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network, citing the record deportations during her tenure, said, "Napolitano's continued presence in the President's cabinet undermines confidence in his commitment on immigration reform."
This piece was updated at 1:54 PM
Ted Hesson contributed reporting.