A photographer turned U.S. Customs and Border Protection janitor spent seven years collecting seized objects.
In 2007, photographer Thomas Kiefer was working part time as a janitor at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Ajo, Arizona. One day, while sifting through the trash, Kiefer noticed a pile of toothbrushes and decided to take them home. “I thought, my God, just from an ecological point of view, these shouldn’t go in the landfill,” he says. “Then it was a pocket knife, and it just continued to grow.”
Over the next seven years, until he left the station in 2014, Kiefer secretly collected thousands of items taken and discarded by the U.S. government from deported migrants. In 2008, he started neatly organizing and photographing them in groups against simple backdrops.
“These were reverent objects,” he says. “I wanted to let them speak for themselves.” The compositions are narratively dense, packed frame-to-frame with the casualties of failed journeys, intimate and confrontational. Kiefer titled the series, “El Sueño Americano” (“The American Dream”).
Before sending migrants arrested for illegal entry to criminal court, CBP officers confiscate all lethal and non-essential items. Those not retrieved within 30 days are disposed of. In a 2013 study out of Mexico, 1 out of every 3 deported migrants reported CBP took and didn’t return at least one of their possessions. For years, advocacy groups have criticized the policy for empowering mass state theft.
The needle inched forward in February, when the U.S. and Mexican governments signed new repatriation agreements, introducing a clause stating that involved government officials should take “all feasible steps” to ensure property, valuables, and money are retrievable by their rightful owner upon release from custody. Since then, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico has already filed new complaints of CBP misconduct. Kiefer’s images bring this injustice into focus.