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Indiana has role in foreign relations

This week the Indiana Senate began debate on SB 590, a measure that, if enacted, would – among other provisions – require police officers to verify the citizenship and immigration status of apprehended suspects whom officers have “reasonable suspicion” to believe may be in the country without authorization.

SB 590 is, of course, modeled after similar legislation enacted amid much controversy in Arizona last year.

The Arizona law – and “copycat” efforts under consideration here and in several other states – has been criticized by those who fear it encourages racial profiling by law enforcement personnel.

But heated dialogue around these measures has not only reignited long-running debates over immigration and race relations, it also has sparked an important national discussion on federalism – the distribution of power among the U.S. government and the governments of 50 unique and independent-minded states. While proponents of SB 590 and related bills claim that states must step in where the feds fail to act, opponents argue that regulation of our national borders must remain the responsibility of the federal government alone.

While I sit firmly in the latter camp, I don’t believe merely punting the immigration question to policymakers in Washington is all the states can and should do. There are proper and important roles we can play to complement and support whatever reforms Washington might produce.

As an example, I am representing Indiana in a highly effective program aimed at sharing knowledge and improving cooperation among law enforcement professionals in state governments in Mexico and the U.S. The Alliance Partnership initiative is managed by the Conference of Western Attorneys General and pools the resources of federal agencies such as the U.S. State Department and other public and private entities.

Mexico is in the process of transitioning from its inquisitional system of justice, inherited from Spanish colonialists, to an adversarial legal system similar to that used in U.S. courts. The Alliance Partnership is supporting this monumental undertaking by sponsoring exchanges among law enforcement personnel in both countries and conducting trainings for Mexican prosecutors, investigators, forensic scientists and judicial staff.

Trainings cover critical components of the U.S. system, including adversarial trial proceedings, attorneys’ opening and closing statements, direct testimony and cross-examination, preserving forensic evidence at crime scenes and collecting evidence and witness statements – all the elements we Americans recognize from TV legal dramas but take for granted because they are so well-engrained.

I have witnessed these exchanges firsthand; and as a former college instructor I can attest to their rigorousness.

I had the honor last September of hosting 80 prosecutors and investigators from Mexico who were in Indianapolis to learn about the American system, and recently I participated in a reciprocal visit to Mexico for a law conference led by Rommel Moreno Manjarrez, attorney general of the Mexican state of Baja California. (This trip was paid for by CWAG and the U.S. Agency for International Development, so no Indiana tax dollars were spent.)

States typically don’t get involved in foreign relations, so why is this an appropriate role for Indiana to play? Because 99 percent of all criminal trials in the United States take place at the state level, and because a similar ratio may ultimately occur once Mexico fully adopts the adversarial system, law enforcement and judicial professionals from U.S. states have the relevant expertise to fully prepare their Mexican counterparts.

Furthermore, even though states don’t have authority to manage federal immigration, they do feel the impacts of a poorly controlled national border. Crime and violence in our neighbor to the south are problems for all Americans, since Mexican cartels seek to expand their drug distribution networks into the United States – reaching not only border states such as Arizona but heartland communities such as those in Indiana as well.

By getting involved in efforts like the Alliance Partnership, Indiana and other states can help establish and nurture cross-jurisdictional cooperation on pressing law enforcement issues ranging from drug and human trafficking and money laundering to consumer fraud and piracy. Greater cooperation, trust and information-sharing between law enforcers and judicial officers on both sides of the border creates a more peaceful backdrop against which the U.S. government can work to improve an immigration system that clearly needs fixing.

We in the Indiana Attorney General’s Office are honored to play a role by providing our knowledge and experience to our Mexican colleagues in their struggle to establish the rule of law that their proud nation needs and deserves. As Attorney General Moreno Manjarrez told me in Mexico, “The challenges of crime and immigration are joined at the hip, just as our two countries are joined by a common border and a common desire for the safety and economic security of their citizens. If we can work together on both challenges, we can achieve both desires.”

Greg Zoeller is attorney general of Indiana. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.