Lawmakers scuffled on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives on Monday after a Dallas-area Republican told Democrats that he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers on protesters in the House gallery.
“We were just on the floor talking about the SB4 protests, and [state Rep.] Matt Rinaldi came up to us and made it a point to say, ‘I called (ICE) on all of them,’ ” state Rep. Philip Cortez (D) said. “And this is completely unacceptable. We will not be intimidated. We will not be disrespected.”
The protesters were apparently chanting and waving signs against Senate Bill 4, the controversial Texas legislation that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law this month. It bans sanctuary cities, allows police to question anyone they detain about their immigration status, and compels local officials to comply with federal requests to detain individuals in state and local law enforcement facilities. The law was passed amid a national conversation about immigration enforcement priorities and promises from the Trump administration to aggressively pursue and deport undocumented immigrants.
Signing SB4 into law was seen as a big victory for Texas Republicans, who had tried unsuccessfully to pass a ban on sanctuary cities in each legislative session since 2011. Texas Democrats reacted to the bill’s passage with alarm; one lawmaker went on a hunger strike.
Video of the scuffle shows lawmakers pushing one another, yelling and gesticulating. Later, Democrats said, Rinaldi repeatedly got in their faces and cursed at them.
Afterward, Democrats held a news conference, furious at what they called “disrespect.”
“He saw the crowd, and he saw illegals,” state Rep. Ramon Romero Jr. said. “He saw people that, whether he likes to accept it or not, in his heart, he has hate for those people, and he wants to see them gone. He wants to see them gone so much, to the point that he called ICE.”
At one point, some of the language between the two sides apparently turned violent.
“There was a threat made from Representative Rinaldi to put a bullet in one of my colleagues’ heads,” state Rep. Justin Rodriguez said during the news conference. “That kind of threatening language, he needs to be called out and held accountable for.”
But Rinaldi said the threat went the other way — that state Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D) “threatened my life on the House floor.”
“I called ICE on several illegal immigrants who held signs in the gallery that said, ‘I am an illegal immigrant and here to stay,’ ” he said in a statement after the incident. Rinaldi went on to detail purported threats against him from Democratic lawmakers, saying he was assaulted and had sought the protection of law enforcement officials.
Rinaldi is reportedly under the protection of the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Without audio of the exchange on the Texas House floor, it’s impossible to say who threatened whom. But scuffles in the legislature show how the issue of immigration enforcement can stir passions on both sides.
Rinaldi’s decision to call ICE agents fits in with Texas Republicans’ main argument on immigration: that laws on the books should be enforced more strictly, and undocumented immigrants should be processed for deportation. Democrats say Rinaldi crossed a huge line, accusing him of profiling Hispanics in the House gallery.
And the fight over sanctuary cities isn’t over. In April, a federal judge said President Trump’s executive order on sanctuary cities is unconstitutional, and a barrage of legal challenges to the new Texas law is expected soon.