An emotional legislative session bubbled over on its last day Monday when activists opposing a new tough sanctuary cities law shut down deliberations in the Texas House, a protest that later triggered a scuffle among fellow lawmakers that included threats of gun violence.
Shortly after House members began their final day of the regular session, protesters in red T-shirts emblazoned with the word “Lucha,” or “Fight,” filed into the chamber’s gallery and began chanting “Here to stay, ” temporarily forcing House leaders to stop working while state troopers escorted them out.
The activists were protesting against SB4, a law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott this month that allows police to inquire about a person’s immigration status during traffic stops. It also requires police chiefs and sheriffs, under threat of penalty, to comply with federal requests to hold criminal suspects for deportation.
Exactly what happened on the House floor depends on who is doing the talking. Some say the incident was marked by yelling and curse words between several lawmakers — including state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, and state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., R-Fort Worth, who went “nose-to-nose” before being separated.
Rinaldi contends he was assaulted by Romero and is now under protection of the Department of Public Safety. On Facebook, Rinaldi admitted he threatened to shoot one of his colleagues in self-defense after being threatened by him.
State Rep. Cesar Blanco, D-El Paso, one of the lawmakers involved, said: “Today is an unfortunate day.”
Calling in ICE
House members stood on the floor watching the protesters, some taking photos or making phone calls. A few lawmakers applauded the protesters.
Blanco was standing with Romero on the House floor watching the protest. Out of support, Romero said he had his arm raised and was chanting with the crowd: “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, SB4 has got to go,” when Rinaldi came up and told the two he had called ICE, or immigration officers, on the protesters.
Blanco said he reminded Rinaldi that he’s Italian and Italians were once treated poorly here and when Rinaldi said the difference between him and those protesting “is that I love this country.”
There was some yelling, a scuffle and some unprintable words said — but no punches thrown — before the lawmakers were separated. At one point Romero said he was “nose to nose” with Rinaldi, but he walked away from the conflict after another lawmaker whispered in his ear: “Matt is not worth it.”
Later, Rinaldi posted statements on Facebook and Twitter saying that his life was threatened by state Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass, after he “called ICE on several illegal immigrants who held signs in the gallery which said, ‘I am illegal and here to stay.’ ”
“Several Democrats encouraged the protestors to disobey law enforcement,” Rinaldi posted on social media. “When I told the Democrats I called ICE, Representative Ramon Romero physically assaulted me, and other Democrats were held back by colleagues.
“During that time Poncho told me that he would ‘get me on the way to my car.’ He later approached me and reiterated that ‘I had to leave at some point, and he would get me.’ I made it clear that if he attempted to, in his words, ‘get me,’ I would shoot him in self defense. I am currently under DPS protection. Several of my colleagues heard the threats made and witnessed Ramon assaulting me.”
But during a news conference, Democrats said it was actually Rinaldi who made threats toward Nevarez.
Monday’s protest was organized by activists who canvassed over Memorial Day weekend in Austin. They told immigrants about their rights and urged grassroots resistance against SB4. The measure goes into effect Sept. 1.
Protesters unfurled banners that stated “See you in Court” or “See you at the polls.” Wave after wave of chants were heard even as DPS was removing protesters. Many also blew whistles, cheered and stomped their feet. It took more than 20 minutes to clear the gallery.
“SB4 is hate,” the crowd also chanted, along with “Hey, hey, ho, ho, SB4 has got to go.”
After being removed from the House gallery, protesters were seen marching around the Texas Capitol. There were no reports of arrests.
Texas House members earlier this session approved the measure, marked by tears, pleas for compromise and hunger strikes by some members, including Romero.
Romero said he worries that law enforcers will react the same way Rinaldi and other lawmakers did Monday and automatically racially profile Hispanic Texans because of the new law in effect.
But Romero said the protest gave him hope. “Today, what we saw was that people want to be heard,” he said. “These folks are hurt and they are not going to give up. ... I saw thousands of people here protesting a bill already signed into law.”
This story includes material from The Associated Press.