Violence, threats during floor debate in Texas Legislature – May 2017

Austin, TX

Texas State Representative Matt Rinaldi called federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to deal with a group of protesters in the gallery of the House of Representatives in the Texas State Capitol Building. The demonstrators were objecting to Senate Bill 4, which banned the declaration of “sanctuary cities” in the state, where undocumented immigrants could be protected from federal law enforcement officers. Exchanges between the lawmakers became heated, and there was extensive pushing and shoving. Democratic State Representative Justin Rodriguez stated in a press conference after the incident that Rinaldi had threatened “to put a bullet in one of my colleague’s heads.” Rinaldi claimed afterwards that Democratic State Representative Poncho Nevárez had “threatened my life on the House floor.”

Key Figures

Matt Rinaldi, Texas State Representative (R): Rinaldi was elected in 2014 representing a northern Dallas district. When the protests began at around 11 am on Monday, May 29, 2017, in the form of the protesters chanting their opposition to the bill from the gallery, Rinaldi told his fellow lawmakers he had called ICE to deal with them. One Democratic representative said later that Rinaldi had told him, “We’re going to have them deported,” before using an obscenity. After this, representatives began pushing and shouting at each other on the floor. Later, Rinaldi wrote in a Facebook post that he made the claim he would shoot Nevárez in self-defense. He added that he was currently under Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) protection.

Poncho Nevárez, Texas State Representative (D): Nevárez was elected in 2012 representing a district in McLennan County, where the city of Waco is located. After the incident, Nevárez denied threatening Rinaldi’s life. In an appearance on CNN, he said that Rinaldi did threaten to “put a bullet in my brain.”

Justin Rodriguez, Texas State Representative (D): Rodriguez was elected in 2012 representing a San Antonio district. Rodriguez spoke about the incident at a press conference where he confirmed Rinaldi’s threat to Nevárez.

Further details

Senate Bill 4 banned sanctuary cities in Texas, gave police officers the ability to question anyone they pulled over about the individual’s citizenship status, and obligated local law enforcement officials to cooperate with federal requests to detain individuals in state and local facilities. The bill had been signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) earlier in the month. Nevárez later denied threatening Rinaldi’s life. He acknowledged that the protesters had become “unruly,” but maintained that this was because that they did not know the rules of the House Chamber.

ICE did not comment on whether it had responded to the incident. Texas DPS responded and cleared the gallery of the protesters. There were no lasting repercussions for any of the lawmakers involved.

On August 30, 2017, according to The New York Times, a federal judge in San Antonio blocked S.B. 4 from taking effect. Judge Orlando L. Garcia, of U. S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, wrote that “SB 4 clearly targets and seeks to punish speakers based on their viewpoint on local immigration enforcement policy.” He also said the law was unconstitutionally vague, and would foster “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against disfavored localities.” The ruling is temporary and is likely to be appealed.

External Resources

A Texas Republican is accused of threatening to ‘put a bullet in one of my colleagues’ heads,’ The Washington Post

Texas Lawmakers Threatens to Shoot Colleague After Reporting Protesters to ICE, The New York Times

Representative Rinaldi’s Facebook Post

Texas Dem denies threatening colleague on legislature floor, The Hill

Republican lawmaker: I called immigration authorities on Capitol protesters, The Texas Tribune

Federal Judge Blocks Texas’ Ban on ‘Sanctuary Cities,’” The New York Times

By Graham Piro ‘18

September 6, 2017