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Photographer Documents The Personal Items Confiscated By Border Patrol


Photos of things taken from migrants caught at the Arizona-Mexico border make up an exhibition called "The American Dream." It's at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The photographer is Tom Kiefer. For 11 years, he was a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Arizona. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has more.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Tom Kiefer moved to Ajo, Ariz., in 2001 after working as a graphic designer and antique store owner in LA. He says he wanted to photograph the American landscape. But he needed a job, and he found one as a part-time janitor with the Border Patrol. Kiefer says at the station, people caught in the desert were fingerprinted, and their belongings were taken from them.

TOM KIEFER: All the food that the migrants and asylum-seekers carried in their backpack - it was just being thrown in the trash.

DEL BARCO: Kiefer says at first, Border Patrol agents took what was edible to local food banks. Everything else was discarded.

KIEFER: Deeply personal belongings - a Bible, a rosary, a family photograph. And I just, you know, instantly knew that this was not right.

DEL BARCO: Kiefer began collecting the confiscated items - soaps, shoes, belts, shoelaces, bandanas and water bottles - things the Border Patrol deemed nonessential or dangerous.

A toothbrush could be lethal.

KIEFER: Well, a hard plastic one, yes - it could be, theoretically, ground down to use as a shiv. The cologne could be sprayed in the agent's face.

DEL BARCO: A baby's shoe.

KIEFER: Nonessential.

DEL BARCO: A Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.

KIEFER: Nonessential - they have the clothes that they're wearing, so they're now incarcerated, so they don't need any extra clothing.

DEL BARCO: Kiefer says that thinking infuriated him.

KIEFER: The whole point is just to dehumanize and strip people of their - any scintilla of hope and humanity.

DEL BARCO: Kiefer couldn't give the belongings back to the migrants who moved on. The best he could do was save them in boxes, which eventually filled up his home and his studio. As a photographer, he also wanted to document his collections.

KIEFER: In my heart, I felt like I was at least doing my part, protecting things with dignity, respectful reverence.

DEL BARCO: His exhibition at the Skirball in LA is called "Sueño Americano" - American Dream. In his photos are artfully arranged collections of crucifixes and hand-embroidered mantas (ph), or blankets, 50 toothbrushes in red, white and blue, an assemblage of rubber duckies used by immigrants to mark trails in the desert.

LAURA MART: You think about the people who these items were taken from. And you think, we don't know what happened to any of them.

DEL BARCO: Curator Laura Mart points out one photo of a love letter that was tucked into a pocket Bible.

MART: It says, Blanca (ph), I want you to know that I've loved you since I met you. Your beautiful eyes - they hypnotize me. I will always be yours. You know, we don't know if this was given to her on the occasion of her leaving or what, but I would think it would give somebody great comfort. And then, like, what another insult and trauma for that to be taken away from you.


DEL BARCO: One of Kiefer's photos is of a collection of CDs confiscated from a woman named Cynthia Gallegos Lucas. Visitors can listen to her playlist on headphones - Motown, Santana, the soundtrack to "Boogie Nights," oldies, Death Cab for Cutie.

KIEFER: I can't imagine how I would feel if my music collection was taken away.


DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE: (Singing) If there's no one beside you when your soul embarks, then I'll follow you into the dark.

DEL BARCO: Cynthia Gallegos Lucas, if you're listening, Tom Kiefer has your CDs.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.


DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE: (Singing) I got my knuckles bruised by a lady in black. I held my tongue as she told me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.
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