AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – A tense legislative session in Texas came to a head on its final day Monday with a scuffle on the House floor, after a representative called immigration officers on protesters and threatened to shoot one of his colleagues.
Hundreds of protesters opposing Senate Bill 4, an anti-sanctuary cities measure, packed the Capitol and disrupted proceedings of the House for about 20 minutes on Monday, as they unfurled banners and chanted from the gallery.
The bill, which allows local law enforcement officers to question any detained person about their immigration status and requires local officials to comply with federal detainer requests, was one of Gov. Greg Abbott’s legislative priorities this session. He signed it into law earlier this month.
Opponents say SB 4 is discriminatory against Hispanics, encourages racial profiling and is unconstitutional.
After Democratic lawmakers on the House floor clapped and cheered in solidarity with the protesters Monday, Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, told members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, or MALC, that he called Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers on the protesters, as he believed that some of them were “illegal immigrants.”
Democratic representatives who heard Rinaldi, who is a member of the Tea Party-aligned Freedom Caucus, said he cursed the protestors and said that they “did not love this country.”
In a statement Monday, Rinaldi said that’s when Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, “physically assaulted” him and “other Democrats were held back by colleagues.”
Video of the scuffle shows representatives from both parties jostling in a scrum, but it’s unclear whether any representative actually physically assaulted another.
In a press conference Monday, Romero said that no one touched Rinaldi except for his Republican colleagues who pulled him away.
A few minutes later, Rinaldi threatened to shoot Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass.
In his statement, Rinaldi claims that the threat was made after Nevárez said that he would “get” him on the way to his car later in the day.
“I made it clear that if he attempted to, in his words, ‘get me,’ I would shoot him in self defense,” Rinaldi said. “I am currently under [Department of Public Safety] protection.”
Democrats who heard Rinaldi say he threatened to shoot Nevárez in the head.
At the press conference, Nevárez said he was sorry that the scuffle happened, but said that Rinaldi was “asking for it.”
“For a guy to say what he did and think that there’s no reckoning and no repercussions, he’s wrong,” Nevárez said.
He noted that Rinaldi won his seat by a narrow margin and is up for election again in 2018, and said he’d consider walking through Rinaldi’s district to explain to his constituents that their representative is “a waste of space.”
“The reason why we passed a law like [SB 4] that’s going to hurt so many people is because of wastes of space like Matt Rinaldi,” Nevárez said.
Romero said at the press conference that Rinaldi’s actions exemplified the problem with SB 4.
“Matt Rinaldi demonstrated he saw these ‘illegals’ just as, unfortunately, officers around the state are going to see people as illegal,” Romero said. “Those folks in the crowd were U.S. citizens, and they were here demonstrating their First Amendment rights.”
Rep. Rafael Anchia, a Democrat from Dallas who is the chair of MALC, said that the incident allowed the public to “finally hear some honesty from some members of the legislature who really do believe that Latinos should be deported from the United States.”
“That really is emblematic of a lot of what we’ve seen this session,” Anchia said.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a statement Monday that “there’s no excuse for members making insensitive and disparaging remarks on the floor of the Texas House.”
Rep. Celia Israel, a Democrat from Austin and a member of MALC, said at Monday’s press conference that her colleagues who have been in the House for years are saying this is the worst legislative session they’ve ever seen.
“This session has been very, very difficult, and emotional in many different ways … over contentious issues,” Israel said.
Israel, one of only two openly LGBT members of the legislature, has been fighting another one of the most contentious bills this session: SB 6, which would require transgender people in Texas to use restrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities that correspond with the biological sex on their birth certificates.
SB 6, otherwise known as the “bathroom bill,” has drawn almost as much protest as SB 4 over the 140-day session, but is such a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s that it could bring the Legislature back for a 30-day special session this summer.
On Friday, Straus held a rare press conference where he said that the House had compromised enough on the “bathroom bill” after passing a pared-down version of the bill last week which would prevent transgender students from using school bathrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity.
“It’s absurd that bathroom bills have taken on greater urgency than fixing our school finance system,” Straus said.
In a dueling press conference an hour later, Patrick called for a special session, although only the governor has the authority to do so.
On Monday, Abbott said he would make an announcement later this week about whether there would be a special session.
The next regularly scheduled legislative session for Texas lawmakers is set to begin Jan. 8, 2019.