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


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© 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.


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE


© Thomas Kiefer/INSTITUTE

  • Jennifer R.

    So chilling. Haunting photographs.

  • strommy8

    how is it we’re deeming wallets as non essential? beautiful, sad photos, hope people eventually got their lives back somewhere

  • Cheryl

    it’s so sad , as humans we should be ashamed of ourselves

  • Johnjon

    These people have so little to begin with. What’s the point?

  • Moribund Cadaver

    It’s about authority and power. Reinforcing the view that breaking a regulation means you become a non-person.

    US government agencies has a history of recruiting Manichaeist persons who see everything in black and white, and believe all things are either good or evil. Operating policies and rules of engagement tend to reflect this.

    These practices go unchecked for so long because 1. it affects people who are not comfortable and suburban deep inside the country and 2. a significant part of the American public is itself binary moralistic, legalistic, and ethically myopic. It is why one so often sees desperate people crossing a border rigidly referred to in dehumanizing terms such as ‘illegals’ and ‘criminals’.

  • The main idea behind photographic art is the transferring of emotions, visually. I agree it can require a bit of developed conscious effort to understand the effects of what system of oppression do.

    I’m actually happy you asked a very important question.

    The point was to join the national #Not1More campaign.
    No human being is illegal.

  • SolarPal

    Heartbreaking photos. Such small items to be taken away from people seeking a better life. It feels like Abu Ghraib all over again. Dick Cheney’s legacy and cohorts. Hopefully no waterboarding, but exhibitions of demeaning with power and control.

  • Janet McGuinness Pierce

    How do you throw away Rosary beads, much less confiscate them? Afraid they’ll novena their way out of the country?

  • Kent Betts

    Yeah, somewhere where they aren’t surrounded by a lot of Mexicans.

  • Kent Betts

    Mexicans are already ashamed of being Mexicans …. I think we’ll leave it at that.

  • Kent Betts

    Yeah, like there is a shortage of ignorance and superstition nowadays.

  • MadameAlto .

    Taking away their rosaries is about the most inhumane thing I can think of. Where’s the harm in letting them keep those? Or if they feel like they could be used as weapons, at least give them back.

  • Kyoko Sakata

    Sadly, humility and scorn I think.

  • Janet McGuinness Pierce

    Well you’ve certainly left no question about the former.

  • Kait

    Incredibly humbling.

  • Emily Walton

    That was the image that really got me. Such a tiny object, no threat to the border guards and of deep personal significance to the owner; there’s literally no reason to confiscate it except to debase the victim.

  • Jolene Ladd

    Thankyou so much for doing this,i lost all to fire last july,i barely remember whwere my clothes came from,cant imagine all these people losing their precious belongings as i did,sad,

  • dragonfly310

    I think this is an issue of safety. When a large amount of people are huddled together in a small area, you don’t want them having weapons. Sad to say, but even a rosary can be turned into a weapon. It would be very easy to wrap a rosary around someone else’s throat and choke him with it.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get some visual inspiration into your day!