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A Former Janitor Collects and Photographs the Items Seized from Immigrants and Thrown Away By U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

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© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE

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© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE

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© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE

It started with toothbrushes. Arizona-based photographer Thomas Kiefer had been working part-time as a janitor at the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Ajo, some 40 miles from the Mexican border, for several years when he acted on his impulse to salvage— and to catalog—some of the hundreds of personal items thrown away in the facility. As hopeful American immigrants, many of them illegal, were apprehended and brought to the station, personal objects deemed “non-essential” were seized and disposed of during processing. With El Sueno Americano, or The American Dream, Kiefer tells the story of those who risked their freedom and their lives to cross the border through the many possessions they had to leave behind.

After taking the position at the station, the photographer was unsettled by the sheer volume of the food stuffs, hygienic products, and objects of personal significance that were seized and then trashed as people moved through the system. As a janitor, he admits he wasn’t party to the complexities of the process; what he can say with certainty is many articles were removed from their owners at some point during the procedure.

Initially, it was just food he retrieved from the waste containers and subsequently donated to a nearby food bank. From there, of course, it was the toothbrushes, then hairbrushes, t-shirts, wallets, and rosary beads. The collection of objects used to make a single image sometimes required hours of work, sometimes weeks.

These, suggests Kiefer, are the few and deeply valued things people wanted to bring with them as they entered into the United States. These are the things that were taken away and were never to be seen again. The photographer abstains from making any overt political statements, and ultimately, through these anonymous assemblages of the routine items so many of us take for granted, he asks only that we feel empathy.

After coming into intimate contact with these once-private belongings, Kiefer explains that he never met the nameless people who once called them their own. Sometimes, he allows, his eyes met those of the apprehended and lingered there just for a moment before his return to work. Kiefer has since left the job at the station and works on El Sueno Americano full time. Says the photographer of the American Dream, “It seems that it’s not for everyone.”

Thomas Kiefer is represented by The Story INSTITUTE, where the full series El Sueno Americano can be seen.

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© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE

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© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE

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  • Daniela Carrigo

    Useless for the person who does not know the difference between were and where….

  • Daniela Carrigo

    The US supports and funds those southern fences

  • thinkingforyourself

    He avoids outright stating, whether these were items the illegal aliens threw away themselves, or things the US agents confiscated and disposed of? This creates an innuendo that does make a political statement regardless of his protestations. It seems to me that in processing hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens a facility could accumulate just this sort of detritus, discarded accidentally or on purpose by the aliens themselves in the press of the moment. I find it unlikely they would confiscate rosaries, let alone many of these other items. I question also the idea that a federal detention center simply allowed someone to haul all this stuff off and use it as if it were his personal belongings. Even hauling off “food” these people threw away to give to a food bank sounds unlikely to me, believe it or not that sort of stuff is governed by regulations at federal facilities.

  • Tony Prost

    happens all the time!

  • laura

    The baby toy ducks, the rosaries…how do you take something like that away?

  • laura

    I have some magic beads that belonged to a loved relative. The signifagance of them to me is that she gave them to me. In any case, prayer is meditation, and there is plenty of scientific evidence that meditation is benificial, no matter what it is called

  • I just don’t get why would they throw away a hair brush or Rosary beads. What is going on in costumes?

  • Joel Schomberg

    Don’t be ignorant. Calling something like that a weapon is an flimsy excuse. They are not worried about them hurting each other.
    They are trying to dehumanize these people and defeat their spirit.

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