AUSTIN (CBSDFW.COM/AP) — Hundreds of protesters opposing Texas’ tough new anti-“sanctuary cities” law launched a raucous demonstration from the public gallery in the Texas House on Monday, briefly halting work and prompting lawmakers on the floor below to scuffle — and even threaten gun violence — as tense divides over hardline immigration policies boiled over.
Activists wearing red T-shirts reading “Lucha,” or “Fight,” quietly filled hundreds of gallery seats as proceedings began. After about 40 minutes, they began to cheer, drowning out the lawmakers below. Protesters also blew whistles and chanted: “Here to stay!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, SB4 has got to go,” referring to the bill that Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law this month.
Some unfurled banners reading: “See you in court!” and “See you at the polls!”
State House leadership stopped the session and asked state troopers to clear the gallery. The demonstration continued for about 20 minutes as officers led people out of the chamber peacefully in small groups. There were no reports of arrests.
Texas’ new law is reminiscent of a 2010 Arizona “show your papers” measure that allowed police to inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine interactions such as traffic stops. It was eventually struck down in court.
A legislative session that began in January concluded Monday, and the day was supposed to be reserved for goofy group photos and sappy goodbyes. Lawmakers are constitutionally barred from approving most legislation on the last day.
But even after the protest ended, tensions remained high. Rep. Ramon Romero, a Democrat from Fort Worth, said he was standing with fellow Democratic Rep. Cesar Blanco of El Paso when Republican colleague Matt Rinaldi came over and said: “This is BS. That’s why I called ICE.”
Rep. Romero issued the following statement:
“The true intentions of SB4 came to light today on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives. Matt Rinaldi looked into a House gallery full of Americans exercising their first amendment rights against SB4 — Americans of all ages and all ethnicities — and he only saw “illegals.”
As Reps. Cesar Blanco, Phil Cortez, and myself celebrated the enthusiasm for civic engagement being shown, Rep. Rinaldi felt the need to break up our appreciation by telling us he had called ICE to deport the protestors in the gallery. Our reactions were honest. Our reactions were of disgust. His use of profanity to emphasize his point that all he saw was a bunch of “illegals” that deserve to be deported had the intention of anger.
Let me be clear, this was a personal attack on me as a son of Mexican immigrants. I voiced my feelings, as did Reps. Blanco and Cortez, and Rep. Rinaldi replied by saying the people in the gallery did not love this country. Members of his own party came to pull him away, making his accusation of being assaulted completely baseless. Countless members witnessed “the scuffle,” and they will all tell you no assault occurred.
Minutes later, Rep. Rinaldi decided he had not had enough, and threatened another member of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus by telling Rep. Poncho Nevarez he would “put a bullet” in his head. That direct threat merits a full investigation by the appropriate authorities.”
Rinaldi, of Irving in suburban Dallas, and Blanco then began shouting at each other. A scuffle nearly ensued before other lawmakers separated the two.
Later, a group of Democratic lawmakers held a press conference to accuse Rinaldi of threatening to “put a bullet in the head” of someone on the House floor during a second near scuffle. They said the comment was made in the direction of Democratic Rep. Poncho Nevarez, from the border town of Eagle Pass.
In a subsequent Facebook statement, Rinaldi admitted saying he’d called federal authorities and threatened to shoot Nevarez — but said his life was in danger, not the other way around.
Here is his complete statement:
“Today, Representative Poncho Nevarez threatened my life on the House floor after I 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. 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.Texas’ new law requires police chiefs and sheriffs — under the threat of jail and removal from office — to comply with federal requests to hold criminal suspects for possible deportation.”
Police also can ask the immigration status of anyone they stop. The bill was viewed as a crackdown on Austin and other “sanctuary cities,” a term that has no legal meaning but describes parts of the country where police are not tasked with helping enforce federal immigration law.
Monday’s protest was organized by activists who canvassed over Memorial Day weekend in Austin. They informed anxious immigrants about the rights they retain despite the law and urged grassroots resistance against it.
Abril Gallardo rode 15 hours in a van to Austin to urge fellow Hispanics to fight back.
“Fear motivated me to get involved,” said Gallardo, a 26-year-old Mexican native who entered the U.S. illegally at age 12.
Texas cities and immigrant rights’ groups have challenged the legality of the law, hopeful for a legal victory like the one in Arizona, but that could take months to have any effect.
But even as some vowed to fight, others have begun fleeing the state. Their ranks are still too small to quantify, but a larger exodus — similar to what occurred in Arizona — could have a profound effect on the Texas economy. The state has more than 1 million immigrants illegally in the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Some are abandoning Texas for more liberal states, where they feel safer — even if it means relinquishing lives they’ve spent years building.
Jose, a 43-year-old Mexican living in the U.S. illegally since 2001, and his wife Holly left Austin for Seattle in January in anticipation of Texas’ immigration crackdown. That meant parting with Jose’s grown son, their community of friends and their beloved home of eight years.
“I felt like we ripped our roots up and threw ourselves across the country,” said Holly, a 40-year-old Kentucky native who wanted to protect her husband.
Holly said as soon as Donald Trump was elected president, she and her husband began preparing to move. They expected Texas would “follow Trump’s agenda trying to force local law enforcement to do immigration’s job.” And when they heard Texas had approved a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” she said they “finalized the decision.”
CBS11’s Jack Fink will host a Facebook Live discussion on Wednesday, May 31 on the Sanctuary Cities law.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)