Republican lawmaker says life was threatened at protest, leading to threats

FILE - In this April 26, 2017, file photo, students gather in the Rotunda at the Texas Capitol to oppose SB4, an anti-"sanctuary cities" bill that already cleared the Texas Senate and seeks to jail sheriffs and other officials who refuse to help enforce federal immigration law, as the Texas House prepares to debate the bill in Austin, Texas. Immigrant activists who lived under a now-overturned anti-“sanctuary cities” law in Arizona that empowered police to inquire about peoples’ immigration status during routine interactions like traffic stops are visiting Texas to offer tips on how to cope with similar restrictions the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature recently approved. Eric Gay, File AP Photo

AUSTIN, Texas (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.”

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.

“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,'” Rinaldi wrote. He said Democrats were encouraging protesters to ignore police instructions and, “When I told the Democrats I called ICE, Representative Ramon Romero physically assaulted me, and other Democrats were held back by colleagues.”

Rinaldi said Nevarez later “told me that he would ‘get me on the way to my car.'” Rinaldi said he responded by making it clear “I would shoot him in self-defense,” adding that he is currently under Texas Department of Public Safety protection.

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.”

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1:30 p.m.

A group of Democratic lawmakers is accusing a Republican colleague of threatening to “put a bullet in the head” of someone on the Texas House floor, as a raucous immigration protest unfolded in a public gallery.

At a news conference Monday, the Democrats said Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi made the threat toward Rep. Poncho Nevarez, a Democrat from the border town of Eagle Pass.

Rinaldi left the House floor and wasn’t available for comment.

But several Democratic lawmakers said he’d bragged about “calling ICE” on protesters who interrupted a House floor session to protest Texas’ new anti-sanctuary cities law.

That led to a near-scuffle with Democratic Rep. Cesar Blanco. But the Democratic lawmakers said the comments about gun play came during a second altercation moments later.

___

11:45 a.m.

Hundreds of protesters removed from the public gallery of the Texas House after their demonstration opposing a tough new immigration law are continuing to chant and cheer in the rotunda of the state Capitol.

Even after police peacefully cleared the public gallery Monday, though, tensions simmered. One Democratic lawmaker said he was enraged when a Republican joked that he was going to call federal authorities to deport the protests.

Protesters, meanwhile, reassembled inside the ground floor rotunda.

Leroy Pena of Dallas, a Lipan Apache Indian, held a sign reading: “Governor Abbott, show me your papers. I am a 15th generation Texan.”

Opponents call Texas’ anti-sanctuary cities law a “show your papers” law since it empowers police to inquire about peoples’ immigration status during routine interactions such as traffic stops.

___

11:15 a.m.

State troopers have cleared the Texas House’s public gallery of protesters and lawmakers are resuming work on the floor.

A raucous protest involving several hundred chanting and cheering demonstrators, some of whom blew whistles, began about 40 minutes into Monday’s final floor session. House leadership asked state troopers to clear the public gallery that rings the floor above the chamber and suspended the session.

Police fanned out and led small groups of protesters out into the hallway. The process took about 20 minutes, and protesters continued to chant their opposition to Texas’ new anti-“sanctuary cities” law throughout.

Once all the protesters were gone, the House gaveled back in and lawmakers went back to largely ceremonial final-day duties.

Texas’ tough new measure compels local police to enforce federal immigration law.

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11 a.m.

Hundreds of protesters wearing red “lucha” or “fight” T-shirts and chanting their opposition to Texas’ tough new anti-“sanctuary cities” law have forced the Texas House to interrupt its floor session.

About 40 minutes into the proceedings on the final day of the legislative session Monday, protesters began cheering and chanting from the gallery: “Here to stay!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho SB4 has got to go!”

Some waved banners reading “See you in court!”

The House leadership stopped the session and asked state troopers to clear the gallery. The demonstration continued for several minutes as officers led people out of the chamber peacefully in small groups.

Texas recently approved SB4, which compels local police to enforce federal immigration law. Opponents have filed lawsuits.

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10:20 a.m.

Immigrants from Arizona and elsewhere are urging grassroots resistance against Texas’ recently passed crackdown on “sanctuary cities.”

The Texas law is similar to a 2010 Arizona law that lets police inquire about a person’s immigration status even during routine interactions such as traffic stops.

But as the group joins with local activists, their effort is coming too late for a small portion of foreign-born Texans who have already begun evacuating the state.

While their ranks are still too small to measure, a larger exodus – as has already happened in Arizona – could seriously impact Texas. The state has more than 1 million immigrants illegally in the country.

Although the visiting activists are urging resistance, some immigrants are abandoning Texas for more liberal states, where they feel safer from deportation.

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