Billy Penn in Harrisburg

A mural on the capitol steps decries the detention of immigrant families

One Republican leader called it “entirely inappropriate.”

A mural by Michelle Angela Ortiz on the Capitol steps in 2018

A mural by Michelle Angela Ortiz on the Capitol steps in 2018

Sarah Anne Hughes / Billy Penn

HARRISBURG — The steps leading to the capitol building in Harrisburg are now canvas for a mural that decries the detention and deportation of immigrant families in Pennsylvania.

The mural is part of Philly-based artist Michelle Angela Ortiz’s public art project “Familias Separadas.” Much of her work is focused on the controversial Berks County Residential Center, a county-owned facility run with ICE that detains adults and children seeking asylum in the U.S.

The installation of the mural is supported by the Shut Down Berks and Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship coalitions, which are planning a demonstration at the capitol for Nov. 3. The groups insist that Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration can issue an emergency removal order to close the facility. Wolf wants to close the center down, but is legally unable to, according to his spokesperson.

Sundrop Carter, executive director of PICC, said Thursday the mural is another way to reach people and raise awareness about the situation at Berks. She explained that Ortiz has visited the facility and gotten to know women who were detained there for long periods of time. It’s their stories that are amplified by her art.

“Karen was detained with her 5 year old son for 651 days,” a sign flanking the mural states. “What would you tell your son if he asked, ‘Why can’t I be free?'”

While the message may be targeted at Wolf’s administration, it’s another lawmaker who’s speaking out against it. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Brockway) released a statement Wednesday calling the art “entirely inappropriate.”

In a statement, the state Department of General Services said the mural was approved under “normal procedures”:

The Capitol complex routinely allows events, installations, and demonstrations to be held by individuals and groups of all ideologies, including political organizations, within the limits of the first amendment. There have been recent demonstrations by pro-immigration and anti-immigration groups, white nationalist groups, anti-fascism groups, and even rallies for political candidates. In 2016, both the Trump and Clinton campaigns held rallies in commonwealth buildings. The temporary mural on the steps contains no campaign messaging and it is not permanently affixed in any way. It was approved by DGS under our normal procedures.

The mural will be in place for a Nov. 3 rally to bring attention to the Berks facility. Carter said many families who have been released are afraid to speak in public about their experiences, but added that their voices will be represented.

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