What a Janitor Found at a Border Patrol Processing Facility

Tom Kiefer spent years collecting items confiscated and thrown away by border patrol

Féi Hernandez February 27, 2020

"USA! USA! USA!" by Tom Kiefer.

Artist Tom Kiefer’s pho­tog­ra­phy exhib­it at the Skir­ball Cul­tur­al Cen­ter in Los Ange­les, El Sueño Amer­i­cano | The Amer­i­can Dream, is an emo­tion­al­ly grip­ping tale of dis­pos­sessed objects and the migrants who owned them. While work­ing as a jan­i­tor at a U.S. Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion pro­cess­ing facil­i­ty from 2003 to 2014 in Why, Ariz., 40 miles from the Mexico‑U.S. bor­der, Kiefer says he became dis­turbed by the inhu­man­i­ty of strip­ping peo­ple of items that should not have been tak­en in the first place,” and felt called to action. We’re sup­posed to wel­come immi­grants,” Kiefer says.

Kiefer’s photographs force us to engage with the harsh reality many migrants experience in their pursuit of the American Dream.

He spent years col­lect­ing canned food, rosaries, wal­lets, tooth­brush­es, shoelaces and oth­er belong­ings con­fis­cat­ed and thrown away by law enforce­ment. Kiefer’s pho­tographs force us to engage with the harsh real­i­ty many migrants expe­ri­ence in their pur­suit of the Amer­i­can Dream, by bear­ing wit­ness to what remains of them in the Unit­ed States: sweaters, can­dy bar wrap­pers, birth con­trol pack­ets, toy cars.

Kiefer’s work makes us recon­sid­er the val­ue of objects and who gets to decide their worth. Con­sid­er the nuanced impor­tance of Rein­forced Water Bot­tle,” which depicts a duct-taped gal­lon of water that func­tioned as a can­teen across the desert, or Trail Mark­ers,” which depicts sev­en dirt-coat­ed rub­ber ducks that may look sim­ply like dirty toys, but in real­i­ty served as bright trail mark­ers for those roam­ing the road­less desert path to free­dom. USA! USA! USA!” is one of the most strik­ing pho­tographs, dis­play­ing a row of 50 tooth­brush­es in patri­ot­ic col­ors con­fis­cat­ed by Bor­der Patrol agents, objects clas­si­fied as poten­tial­ly lethal or non-essential.

El Sueño Amer­i­cano reveals the intri­cate per­son­al­i­ty, resilience and sto­ry of each migrant. By doc­u­ment­ing these found items, Kiefer brings the invis­i­ble to light and tells the untold sto­ries that define the Unit­ed States’ long his­to­ry of immigration.

Vir­gen de Mick­ey” (2017) depicts a worn, red, Mick­ey Mouse sweater. Asked what he would say to the young child it belonged to, Kiefer replied, Don’t let no one take your hope or dreams from you.”

Kiefer will be donat­ing his archives to a uni­ver­si­ty or immi­gra­tion stud­ies cen­ter in the future, to be used as a ref­er­ence of Amer­i­can his­to­ry. The exhib­it is open through March 8.

All images court­sey of Tom Kiefer and Redux Pictures. 


Brush and Comb Assem­bly, 2017



Shoelaces, Blue, 2017



Baby Shoe, 2018


Diary, 2018

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