They painted a picture of a border and immigration system overwhelmed with illegal, and possibly terrorist, activity, even though the government has pumped billions of dollars into making reforms since 9/11.
"We miss opportunities every day in the area of counterterrorism because of a lack of intelligence that we gather [and] because of a lack of intelligence that's passed on between the appropriate agencies," said David Venturella, former director of the Homeland Security Department's Office of Detention and Removal Operations. "We're missing opportunities to gather that intelligence, to determine the right strategies and the right initiatives, to tackle these problems."
Venturella, who left government service last year, citing frustration, testified with five other officials before a House subcommittee on whether the department should merge its bureaus of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.
Two of the panelists were union members and current DHS employees, three were former DHS employees and one works at a think tank. None supported maintaining the current structure, in which ICE handles interior enforcement and CBP is in charge of borders.
Venturella said a reorganization is needed but a merger "is not necessary at this time and may well cause the department to move backwards."
Other panel members generally agreed that interior and border enforcement should be combined.
"The dual enforcement structure of CBP and ICE has proven to be a major barrier to the accomplishment of the extremely vital mission of the Department of Homeland Security to stop a terrorist from entering our country and carrying out their dastardly deeds," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council.
Bonner charged that coordination and cooperation among homeland security agencies has worsened since the creation of DHS. For example, he said, the government is not as effective as before in stopping border smuggling activities.
"A wall has truly been erected between the people at CBP and the people at ICE," said Michael Cutler, former senior special agent at the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was merged into ICE. "They have separate chains of command, so everyone now has to maintain a sense of competition. ... We can't afford that if we're fighting a war on terror and we're fighting a war on drugs."
Cutler said traditional immigration work, such as sanctioning employers who hire illegal aliens or investigating immigration benefits fraud, is being shortchanged. He added that people who should be picked up for violations are getting away because agencies are not effectively sharing information.
DHS spokeswoman Suzanne Luber disputed the notion that the country is less secure today than when the department was created.
"Every day we look at making sure this country is safe at Homeland Security ... If it means we need to shift resources, that's what we're going to do," she said. "DHS is confident that we are safer today due to additional manpower, technologies and resources than we were two years ago."
Luber said the department is not going to take a stand on the proposed merger of ICE and CBP until the issue is examined as part of a total review of operations and polices, and until the DHS inspector general completes a report on the subject. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff announced last week that he is undertaking the review, while Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, asked the IG to do the report.
Luber could not provide a timeline, saying only that the IG report is expected this summer.
Those who testified had differing opinions on exactly what changes should be made.
James Carafano, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said the department needs a long-term integrated strategy for interior and border enforcement in order to make a merger effective.
Kenneth Klug, former associate special agent in charge at ICE, advocated for immediate change, including the merger.
"To continue under the current configuration would mean maintaining inefficient tasks, wasting tax dollars and the perpetual downslide of the employees and [their] morale," he said. "Simply stated, a house divided cannot stand."