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Eric Gay/AP

Protest sparks threat of gun violence

Profile image for Meredith Hoffman and Will Weissert
Meredith Hoffman and Will Weissert, Associated Press

AUSTIN -- 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.

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.

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."

State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving
State Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving

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.