By Andrea Zelinski and Bobby Cervantes
A brief but intense scuffle broke out on the Texas House floor just before the close of the legislative session Monday after a Dallas-area Republican enraged Democrats by telling them he called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when he saw signs from protesters that read, "I am illegal and here to stay."
During the melee, Rep. Matt Rinaldi of Irving and Democratic Rep. Alfonso "Poncho" Nevarez threatened each other. Rinaldi said he would shoot Nevarez in self-defense after Nevarez said he would confront Rinaldi in the parking lot.
"He picked the wrong group of people to do that to on the wrong day," said Nevarez, of Eagle Pass, before apologizing for the scuffle. "I'm sorry it happened, but the fact is, he's asking for it."
One Democratic lawmaker said Rinaldi threatened to "put a bullet in (Nevarez's) head." Rinaldi, a lawyer, said he is now under protection by the Department of Public Safety and would not confirm that's what he said, but added, "I made it clear that if (Nevarez) attempted to, in his words, 'get me, ' I would shoot him in self-defense."
While Rinaldi said he called ICE as a response to protesters carrying signs identifying themselves as undocumented, some Democrats accused him of racial profiling.
"Matt Rinaldi looked into a House gallery full of Americans exercising their first amendment rights against SB 4 -- Americans of all ages and all ethnicities -- and he only saw 'illegals,'" Rep. Ramon Romero, D-Fort Worth, said in a statement. "Let me be clear, this was a personal attack on me as a son of Mexican immigrants."
The day is normally reserved for technical corrections and ceremonial good-byes, but the morning was interrupted by hundreds of protesters who denounced one of the GOP-controlled Legislature's passage of a law already signed by Gov. Greg Abbott to allow law enforcement to ask people for their immigration status if detained.
Tensions have run high on the issue all year, as Democrats have decried Senate Bill 4 as a discriminatory attempt to target and instill fear in the state's Latino communities.
The mostly Latino demonstrators, who came from across the country, promised to make Texas the next battleground in the national immigration debate and work to unseat legislators in 2018 who supported the law.
In a day-long show of force, protesters promised to oust Republican lawmakers who voted for Senate Bill 4, which allows for the jailing of sheriffs and police chiefs who refuse federal requests to hold undocumented immigrants who are detained for other crimes.
Donning red shirts that read, "no to SB 4," protesters filled the House gallery in the opening hours of the final day's proceedings before erupting into chants and unfurling banners reading, "see you in court" and "see you at the polls."
As a group of Latino representatives chanted along and raised their fists in solidarity as the protesters were ejected from the gallery, Rinaldi taunted the Democrats, several said.
The taunts included profanity-laced insults about calling ICE, according to Democratic Rep. Cesar Blanco of El Paso who reminded Rinaldi his own Italian ancestors were once immigrants.
"'Well, at least my people love this country,'" Rinaldi responded, according to Blanco's recollection.
Blanco said he said he reminded Rinaldi on Memorial Day that the first U.S. soldier to die in Iraq, Army Pfc. Diego Rincon, was not a citizen when he was killed by a suicide bomber in 2003. The two sides then began shoving each other, and the scuffle was broken up by several House members and the parliamentarian.
When asked about the confrontation in the final minutes before the House adjourned, Speaker Joe Straus said it was possible to investigate members for an altercation on the floor, although it is unclear whether lawmakers would do that.
"There is no excuse for members making insensitive and disparaging remarks on the floor of the Texas House," Straus said later in a statement.
Throughout the day, shouts echoed down the Capitol's marble halls as over 1,000 people lined four floors of the building's rotunda shouting "SB 4 is hate," and "si se puede," which loosely translates to, "yes we can."
Protesters were apparently unfazed by the threats to call ICE agents and rallied on the steps of the Capitol for hours afterward.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 4 into law this month, although it has already been challenged in court by the ACLU of Texas, alleging the law is discriminatory and could lead to racial profiling.
The House and Senate adjourned the legislative session without passing a property tax reform bill Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wanted passed. Lawmakers also failed to pass a bill that would license and regulate doctors, which will likely spur the governor to call lawmakers back for a special session to resolve.
As the dust settled on the final legislative day, Nevarez promised to help oust Rinaldi from his House District 115 seat in northwest Dallas County, where he won by a margin of 2 percentage points in last year's race against Democrat Dorotha Ocker.
"I have no use for Matt Rinaldi," Nevarez said. "If I have to walk every day in his neighborhoods and knock on doors and tell (voters) want a waste of space that guy is, I'll do that."
(c)2017 the Houston Chronicle