Former border patrol janitor turns migrants’ confiscated possessions into art

by Editorial Team

They crossed the border looking for sanctuary and were stripped of their possessions, which were given to a janitor to discard. But photographer Tom Kiefer, who worked at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) facility for seven years, couldn’t bear simply chucking these relics into the trash.

Instead he kept them, arranged and photographed them in a homage of sorts, and now they’re part of an art exhibit being shown in Los Angeles and slated to tour nationally.

Before President Trump was elected, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents would donate migrants’ confiscated canned goods to a local food bank. But under the new leadership, the food was discarded instead.

That’s the first thing that struck Kiefer, a graphic designer and photographer, who worked for seven years at a CBP facility in Arizona, he told the Los Angeles Times recently.

“I witnessed all this food being needlessly thrown out,” Kiefer said.

But when he went to reinstate the donation practice, he discovered something else: the myriad personal belongings that border agents also took from migrants.

Kiefer could not bring himself to throw them out as instructed. Instead he kept and documented these everyday objects. They demonstrated that which connects us. He found it was hard to “otherize” people once you’ve seen their toothbrushes, candy bars, combs and CDs.

Trashing such belongings as love letters, rosaries and Bibles “underscores the cruelty of the tentative punishment that the government feels the need to levy against these people,” Kiefer told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s clear the majority of which are decent, contributing and who want nothing more than a better life for themselves or for their family.”

He collected the objects while he worked part-time as a janitor from 2003 to 2014 to support his creative endeavors, the Los Angeles Times said. Later he began photographing them, arranging like items, such as toothbrushes, cell phones, combs and Snickers bars together into images reminiscent of Andy Warhol and his soup cans and Marilyn Monroe works.

Now the collection is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where an exhibit, “El Sueño Americano | The American Dream,” runs through March 8 and will tour nationally. In Washington State, 47 of the photos were also shown last month, at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Olympia, and before that at St. Christopher’s Community Church on Steamboat Island, according to The Olympian.

The CBP takes items deemed “nonessential and potentially dangerous,” as The Olympian described it.

“Rosaries are taken away. Kids’ toys. Wallets with personal pictures. Extra clothing,” Marilyn Walther, who arranged the Washington exhibits with Kiefer’s permission, told The Olympian. “Then if they are deported, the migrants don’t have anything. Where is our compassion? Who are we if we’re doing this?”

While Kiefer said he did not purposely pursue a political agenda, he did have a visceral reaction to seeing and interacting with the items, and that’s why he curates them. He told WBUR that he would like to create an archive that is kept and showcased, woven into U.S. history the way Ellis Island’s heritage is.

“The most important thing is drawing attention to what this is about,” he told The Olympian. “The barbarism, the brutality, the inhumanity, the cruelty.”


Related Posts

Leave a Comment