Border Trash

Story highlights

  • Tom Kiefer photographed what he found in the trash at a Border Patrol facility in Arizona
  • Most of the items — often personal effects — belonged to people crossing the border illegally
 Hair brushes.

Wallets.

Snickers bars.

Normally, such a collection of everyday items might spark little interest in the average person.

When presented as part of the new “Sueno Americano Project,” however, these seemingly mundane items become imbued with poignancy and drama.

The photo project — translated from Spanish as the “American Dream” — shows objects found in trash cans by Tom Kiefer, who worked as a janitor and groundskeeper at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility in Ajo, Arizona. The facility is located about 40 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border and about 120 miles from California.

Photographer Tom Kiefer

“Those who have entered the U.S. illegally, their personal possessions and belongings too easily get lost as they are processed and travel through the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol system,” Kiefer said.

“The enormous amount of belongings, such as extra clothing, socks, shoes and personal items such as rosaries, Bibles, belts, underwear, toothbrushes, soap, was in many ways incomprehensible (to me), and I am certain much of this was not meant to be discarded.”

Kiefer said a goal of the project is to support “a consistent and sensible policy regarding the food carried by migrants who are apprehended and processed.”

“For a number of years, I was allowed to take the canned and nonperishable food (powdered milk, granola bars) to our local food bank, but that came to an end about a year and half before I resigned to work on this project full time.”

Kiefer said the vast majority of items were taken from people crossing the border illegally. He believes there’s something “inherently disturbing” about the items he found in the garbage cans of what’s called the “Sally Port,” a secure, fenced area where those apprehended exit vehicles and begin the first stages of processing.

“I cannot understand why anyone would want to voluntarily give up an item like a rosary, Bible or photo of their child, or for that matter an extra pair of shoes, pants, shirt or jacket,” he said.

“These are pictures of how people and their personal belongings are treated. If someone wants to judge the ethics and morality of all this, it is up to them to decide what is right and what is wrong and, if they choose to do so, to act upon those feelings.”

The project, viewable online, is sponsored by The Story Institute, a photojournalism agency based in Los Angeles and the United Kingdom.

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