Former U.S. Customs & Border Patrol Janitor Photographs Discarded Religious Relics of Migrants

Tags: Currents Border, Faith, Family, Immigrants, Immigration, World News

By Allyson Escobar

Tom Kiefer, a photographer who lives in Arizona, is documenting the journey of migrants at the southern border, examining the lives and religious beliefs of those trying to enter the United States.

Kiefer —who is based in Ajo, Ariz., which is about 40 miles from Mexico — was working for several years part-time as a janitor at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol facility south of Ajo, when he became “really disturbed” by the goods and canned foods that migrants left behind while they trekked through the desert.

“The food was just being thrown away,” Kiefer said. “I asked and was given permission to retrieve the food out of the trash, and bring it to the local food bank. I was shocked to have seen Bibles, rosaries, family photographs.”

More than 144,000 migrants were encountered by Border Patrol at the southern border in May, the highest monthly total in over a decade, according to the New York Times. But border arrests dropped 28 percent in June, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Kiefer shows the migrants’ reality, “El Sueño Americano: The American Dream,” an exhibit focused on migrants’ personal and religious items.

“What they take with them means everything. They don’t know if they’re going to survive crossing the desert — whether it’s a diary or a bottle of cologne, it represents their hopes and their dreams,” he said.

“Like the bottle of cologne — I came across it first and thought this was crazy, why is someone taking up valuable space in their backpack to smell pretty? But then when I started thinking about it, it’s like, that bottle was probably going to be used to help get someone ready for their first job interview in years.”