As immigration activists protest in gallery, Texas lawmakers brawl

Andrew Bahl

A fracas erupted Monday on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives after a Republican lawmaker told Democrats he had called immigration authorities on protesters demonstrating in the Capitol.

The group was demonstrating against Senate Bill 4, which would bar sanctuary cities and require local governments to allow law enforcement to question individuals they stop about their immigration status. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law last month, and it is scheduled to go into effect in September.

Hundreds of protesters line the balconies of the state Capitol rotunda in Austin on May 29 to protest Senate Bill 4, which compels local police to enforce federal immigration law. (Photo: Ricardo Brazziell/Austin American-Statesman via AP)

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, approached a group of Democratic lawmakers, saying he had contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about the protesters, who were chanting and waving signs in the House gallery as it was moving to adjourn for the year.

“He came up to us and said, ‘I’m glad I just called ICE to have all these people deported,’” state Rep. César Blanco, D-El Paso, told the Texas Tribune.

Other lawmakers corroborated Blanco’s account.

“He said, ‘I called ICE — f*** them,” state Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, said.

In a statement, Rinaldi confirmed calling ICE and later elaborated that he was trying to clear the protesters from the gallery, saying they were disrupting the traditional adjournment of the House.

“They were disrupting,” he said. “They were breaking the law.”

ICE officials told CNN that “local enforcement and removal officers received no such call from local lawmakers.”

Multiple Democratic lawmakers quickly confronted Rinaldi, and the fracas turned physical. Video from the incident shows legislators of both parties pushing each other, and both Rinaldi and state Democrats say they were threatened.



Rinaldi alleges that he was assaulted by state Romero and threatened by state Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass.

“When I told the Democrats I called ICE, Rep. Ramon Romero physically assaulted me, and other Democrats were held back by colleagues,” Rinaldi said in a statement. “During that time Poncho told me that he would “get me on the way to my car.”

In the statement, Rinaldi added that he has been under the protection of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The department did not return a request for comment.

Rep. Matt Rinaldi‏ tweeted “Sworn in & ready to get to work!” on Jan. 10, 2017, in Austin. (Matt Rinaldi via Twitter)

Other lawmakers say Rinaldi threatened to shoot Nevárez, something the Republican later confirmed, saying he was prepared to act in self-defense.

“There was a threat made from Rep. Rinaldi to put a bullet in one of my colleague’s heads,” said state Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, at a press conference following adjournment.

Nevárez denied threatening Rinaldi in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo.

“When I realized what it was about and what he was doing and saying … I got in his face and put my hands on the guy,” Nevárez said. “These are things that shouldn’t be happening on the House floor. It’s a break in decorum, and we shouldn’t be doing that.  … I said we need to take this outside because it shouldn’t get resolved in front of all of these people.”

Nevárez said he regretted the incident but added that the confrontation was indicative of Republican attitudes toward Hispanic Texans.

“We can’t get away from the fact that this gentleman sees fit to call ICE on anybody he thinks looks suspicious, and in this case it was a gallery full of people,” he said.

Even after the session ended, tensions remain high. Blanco’s office has said it received at least one phone call with racist remarks. In a video posted to his Twitter feed late Monday night, a caller is heard saying he stands with Rinaldi and adding “f*** the illegal aliens.”

“My office is now receiving these calls. @MattRinaldiTX comments incite hate and racism,” Blanco said in a later tweet.

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