The last day of the Legislature on Monday was marred by a confrontation between lawmakers on the Texas House floor that involved death threats, shoving and a call to immigration authorities.
The incident occurred as protesters were being removed from the House gallery after briefly shutting down proceedings by chanting their opposition to the new law banning so-called sanctuary cities, local jurisdictions that decline to assist federal immigration enforcement.
Suspecting that some of them were unauthorized immigrants, Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving, reported the protesters to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Rinaldi said in a statement, and told several of his Democratic colleagues that he did so. The Democrats responded with outrage.
Rinaldi said that Rep. Poncho Nevárez, D-Eagle Pass, told him he would “get me on the way to my car,” prompting Rinaldi to respond that he “would shoot him in self-defense.” Rep. Justin Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, said he heard Rinaldi say of Nevárez that he would “put a bullet in one of my colleagues’ heads.”
On a day usually reserved for congratulatory speeches and recognitions, the fight was in some ways a fitting finale to a rancorous legislative session marked by battles between the parties over Senate Bill 4, the sanctuary cities law, among other measures, and between GOP factions over a bill that would prohibit transgender Texans from using the restrooms of their choice.
While the regular session is over, lawmakers failed to complete all of their work. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Senate, and his conservative Republican allies in the House prevented a procedural bill needed to keep some state agencies open from passing, probably forcing Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, adjourned the House by saying goodbye to lawmakers “until we meet again, which, like you, I hope will not be anytime soon.”
‘The send-off they deserve’
Stephanie Gharakhanian, who helped plan the protest that led to the confrontation, said opponents of SB 4 wanted lawmakers to know the fight wasn’t over now that the Legislature has adjourned.
“We wanted to make sure we gave them the send-off they deserve,” said Gharakhanian, legal services director for the Workers Defense Project.
The protesters wore red T-shirts, held signs and chanted, “Here to stay.” Spectators are not allowed to cheer or jeer in the House, and Department of Public Safety officers quickly moved to empty the gallery. Senate leaders then moved to prevent entry to the Senate gallery.
Willie Rodriguez, who said he is a fifth-generation Texan who drove from Houston to participate in the protest, said that Rinaldi’s instinct to call immigration authorities on the protesters is evidence of the danger of SB 4, which Democrats and immigration advocates have said will lead to increased racial profiling.
“If he’s looking at me and he’s calling ICE, he’s assuming that I’m not from this side of the border. His judgment is all off. A lot of that’s going to be going on,” Rodriguez, 45, said. “I feel like it’s discrimination. It’s racist.”
While lawmakers were happy to be done with the contentious session, Abbott on Monday reminded everyone that the governor has the prerogative to call them back to Austin.
“I‘ll be making an announcement later this week on a special session,” Abbott said. “When it gets to a special session, the time and topics are solely up to the governor.”
Abbott did not address what topics he was considering putting on the session’s agenda, but he did acknowledge that the Legislature failed to approve measures needed to keep five state agencies operating, including the Texas Medical Board, which licenses the state’s physicians.
Patrick has been pushing for a special session to include two of his priorities that were squelched by the House: a transgender bathroom bill that is broader than one passed by the House, which focuses only on schools, and a bill requiring automatic elections if a city or county tries to raise property taxes above 5 percent.
Asked by reporters how much pressure he was feeling from Patrick to include bathrooms and property taxes in a special session, Abbott answered, “None.”
Addressing the Senate, Patrick on Monday indicated that he expected to be called back to the Capitol shortly.
“I would normally say, ‘See you in 18 months, God willing,’ but we’ll see you a little sooner than that,” he said.