AUSTIN — On the final day of a legislative session a marked with bitter strife, a tea-party Republican got into an altercation with Latino Democrats after calling immigration officials on people protesting the recently passed sanctuary cities ban.

The dustup on the House floor escalated with the Republican saying he would “put a bullet” into the head of Democratic Rep. Poncho Nevárez of Eagle Pass, said Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, who claimed to have heard the remark.

In an interview with reporters, Republican Rep. Matt Rinaldi of Irving denied the comment, but later posted on Facebook that he would “shoot him (Nevárez) in self defense.”

U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who later spoke to immigration advocates at a rally outside the capitol, said that Rinaldi racially profiled every protester in the gallery by calling U.S. Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement just because “he saw a bunch of people that are a shade darker.”

“This is a clear example of how SB 4 will eventually encourage more incidents like the one earlier today (Monday),” he said.

The confrontation on the House floor involved several lawmakers, observers said.

In his Facebook post, Rinaldi accused Nevárez of threatening his life, saying, “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.”

Asked earlier by the Express-News what he had said to Rinaldi, Nevárez replied, “I said, ‘You gotta leave the building sometime.’” Asked what he meant by that, he said he meant that “rather than having these conversations here in front of everybody, we could have them outside.”

Nevárez said he didn’t recall whether he made his remarks before or after Rinaldi made his comment, which he said he didn’t hear clearly.

“I didn’t hear the exact words. It was something about a bullet in my head,” Nevárez said.

The scene was a capper to a session which saw ongoing battles between the House and the Senate, both dominated by Republicans; between tea-party Republicans and more moderate members of the GOP; and between Democrats and Republicans on issues including the sanctuary cities ban.

The ban drew particular concern and emotion from Democrats because it ensures law officers have the authority to ask people they detain about their immigration status, prompting fears of racial profiling.

“It’s almost reflective of kind of the ugliness that we saw all session. In a certain way, you hate to end on that note, but it’s almost appropriate that we do, because that’s the kind of session it was,” Rodriguez said.

Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, said the altercation started when he was looking up at the gallery above the House and pumped his fist to encourage the protesters , who were carrying signs and banners and chanting. The protesters were escorted out of the gallery by law enforcement because such demonstrations aren’t allowed in that space.

Romero said Rinaldi commented on the lack of decorum and said, “Yeah, that’s why I called ICE.” Romero said that Rinaldi called the protesters “a bunch of illegals.”

Rinaldi said in the interview that he didn’t remember exactly what had been said, and he declined to say whether he had called ICE.

However, on Facebook, Rinaldi wrote that his life had been threatened “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 protesters 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.”

No ICE agents were seen at the Capitol Monday

Asked about Rinaldi’s claim that he had been pushed and shoved, Romero said, “Absolutely not. He’s absolutely lying, but I wouldn’t put that past him.”

After DPS troopers cleared the gallery, the protesters moved outside to the south steps of the Capitol. There, the Workers Defense Project, Fair Immigration Reform Movement, United We Dream and Black Transwoman held a rally with speeches and a band playing Mexican cumbias.

Congressman Castro told the crowd that they will eventually see Gov. Greg Abbott in court when SB 4 is argued as unconstitutional, and that Texas will not allow people to be victims of state leaders “playing politics for their own primaries.”

“In every generation there have been Americans like yourselves who have stood up and said, ‘that’s enough, we are not going to take this anymore,’ the people of the United States and the people of Texas know better than this,” Castro said.

The congressman said encouraging people to vote is key.

“The only way to turn things around is if we do everything we can to get our fellow Texans out to vote. We need to replace the governor of the state of Texas, replace the lieutenant governor who won’t give up on this bathroom bill,” Castro said, referring to the bill that would have kept transgender Texans from using the bathrooms of the sex with which they identify, one of the main battlegrounds between the House and Senate leadership this session. The bill died.

Monica Roberts, a trans human rights advocate from Black Transwomen, said that SB 4 is nothing new to Texas, but rather it is following the pattern of conservatives in the Texas Legislature “targeting groups they don’t like.”

She urged protesters to register to vote before November 2018.

“Flush every Republican out of office that voted this bill into existence. It is past time for progressive Texans to take control of this House,” Roberts said.

By Peggy Fikac and Elena Mejia Lutz

This story was published in the San Antonio Express-News May 29, 2017. 

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