Personal Effects

A border Mass near El Paso. (Credit: Abby Grunzinger)

The wallets were what got me. They fool you, because they seem so practical, just neat, safe folders of money. Yet they also hold us, flattened into paper: our name, our age, where we live, who we love. Their edges soften a bit more each day as we reach for proof, currency, or our honor, embossed on a plastic card that promises we will pay our debts. There are folded love notes and coupons, claim checks and prayers stuffed inside wallets, along with the faces of our children …

Tom Kiefer was working as a janitor at a facility where the U.S. Border Patrol processed migrants and asylum seekers. Tossed into the trash, he found piles of wallets—also toys, medications, and other seized personal effects that had been deemed potentially lethal or nonessential. He asked permission to donate the stuff to a shelter. But first he took photographs.

Kiefer grouped the objects by type, and instead of depersonalizing them, it made them feel even more intimately human. An uneven checkerboard of wallets, mostly brown and faded black, a few red or yellow or purple, most well used. A Mondrian grid of combs, some with tines broken by unruly curls, others pristine, used to spiff up and impress a girl maybe, or pressed upon a high-energy kid and never used at all. A pink vinyl Dora the Explorer purse. Cheap little Swiss Army knife knockoffs emblazoned with the U.S. flag. Rows of red-white-and-blue toothbrushes. Small statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, another kind of hope.

The photographs went on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. The exhibition was called El Sueño Americano/The American Dream.

Many a grumbling story has been written about airport security seizing small luxuries that could conceivably be used for violence, but I had read nothing about this sort of seizure. Plastic combs, worn wallets, and empty Dora the Explorers purses seem pretty hard to weaponize. Maybe this was just conceptual art, a false narrative to make a point?

I asked my friend Angie O’Gorman, who spent weeks in El Paso listening to women who had just been released from ICE custody after being detained in the Border Patrol “refrigerators.”

“That was the first thing they talked about, sometimes cried about,” she said. “Border Patrol taking everything from them, including money and ID. And they said the guards yelled sexual obscenities at them as they took things.”

I am still thinking about this—the violence in stripping someone of their possessions, the unexpected wrench of tenderness in those photographs—when more than 100 St. Louis teenagers return from their trip to El Paso. They stayed at a Best Western hotel that had been used by Annunciation House, a volunteer group that eases migrants’ journey, when there was money to pay for an overnight stay. “I think it’s also the same hotel where Beto O’Rourke served people lunch,” says Nerinx Hall junior Abby Grunzinger. “And when you pulled out of the parking lot and looked down the street, you could see the WalMart.”

The Cielo Vista Mall WalMart, where 22 people were gunned down by a shooter convinced that El Paso’s amicable relationship with the city across the border made it ground zero for a “Hispanic invasion.”

Grunzinger signed up for the trip because she wanted to see for herself, not trust newspaper headlines. On the last day of the trip, coordinated by the Archdiocese of St. Louis, there was to be a special Border Mass. They all piled on the bus around seven in the morning, because U.S. Border Patrol was limiting the attendees to 500. Waiting outside the wall, Grunzinger peered through the narrow spaces between the steel posts, looking across the Rio Grande to Mexico. There was nothing on the other side—no wall, no guards, just a few people on horseback and a crowd assembling for Mass.

Eventually, Border Patrol officials opened a door in the wall and clicked as people walked through, counting. “We got to sit on one side of the Rio Grande, and all the people from Mexico sat on the other side,” Grunzinger says. Bishops from the two countries walked out on a wooden bridge and met at a makeshift wooden platform in the middle. The water beneath them was about ankle deep, with patches of grass growing at random. The readings alternated between Spanish and English. There were bands on both sides, and Grunzinger could hear strains of music from across the river.

At the Sign of Peace, she turned to hug friends. When she turned back, she looked across the Rio Grande: “All the people on the Mexico side were just smiling so widely and waving. And then I saw that everyone on the U.S. side was smiling and waving, too.” The moment hit her hard. She had assumed that people from Mexico would resent them—“I mean, we were Americans.” Instead, this felt “like we were kind of stickin’ it to the people trying to keep us apart. You can put up walls and barbed wire, but humanity will triumph.”

The triumph was temporary: The bishop of El Paso was not allowed to walk any farther than the middle of the river; nor was the bishop from Juarez. People could not meet to shake hands. But throughout the Mass, a shaggy little light brown dog trotted back and forth across the bridge.

Freer than any of them.