Ten Years Later: Remembering Senator Paul Wellstone

Posted by Luis CdeBaca
October 25, 2012
Senator Paul Wellstone

Ten years ago, in the federal courthouse in Honolulu, I was among a small group of civil rights prosecutors who had just started trial in the largest slavery prosecution in U.S. history, in which over 300 Chinese and Vietnamese workers had been enslaved in a garment factory in American Samoa. But on the third day of trial, a hammer blow fell on our prosecution team: Paul and Sheila Wellstone's airplane had gone down in northeastern Minnesota, taking their lives as well as that of their daughter and several aides. Senator Wellstone was not just the conscience of the Senate, a voice for the dispossessed and an inspiration to so many, he was the sponsor of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000. He was not only a fellow Midwestern wrestler, but had been a champion for what my colleagues and I were trying to accomplish as we sought to update the post Civil War slavery statues for the modern era. And without Sheila Wellstone's activism, women in Minnesota and around the world would have had no protection from their batterers and traffickers. Without her leadership, women's groups in Washington would not have seen trafficking in persons as the human rights issue she recognized.

Although it was a loss for the family, the State of Minnesota, and for the world, our small team felt it personally. At every break, prosecutor Mark Kappelhoff was calling home to Minnesota, dreading the news as it slowly trickled out. At every break, as we learned more, we began to contemplate a world without Paul and Sheila Wellstone. But the breaks would end, and it was time to go back into court. Over the ensuing weeks, we came to realize that their efforts did not end with that tragic plane crash; we were carrying on their work every day in that courtroom.

It was because of Senator Wellstone that federal law allowed us to focus on the psychological coercion that the garment factory owner used to hold his victims in bondage. It was because of Senator Wellstone that the dozens of witnesses who testified -- and the hundreds more who stood ready to tell their story -- were able to remain in the United States through the "T-visa" program for victims of trafficking and get refugee-like services through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In the following years, it was because of Senator Wellstone that the survivors were able to bring their families to the United States and begin their new lives.

During the months of trial, a photo of Senator Wellstone hung in our bullpen, reminding us that compassion and toughness are an unbeatable combination. A decade later, that photo sits in my office in the State Department, where the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons carries on his work. And each year, the Freedom Network (a group of anti-trafficking service providers from around the country) bestows their Paul and Sheila Wellstone Award to those who go above and beyond in the fight against modern slavery. As we commemorate the Wellstones' lives and legacy, let us also heed the call put forth by President Lincoln 150 years ago and reiterated by President Obama last month. Let us rededicate ourselves to the fight for a world without slavery.


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