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Texas Lawmakers Accuse Each Other of Assault, Threats as Hundreds of ‘SB4’ Protesters Disrupt Session

AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers accused each other of assault and threatening each other's lives on Monday during a tense final day of the legislative session as hundreds of protesters opposing Texas' tough new anti-"sanctuary cities" law launched a raucous protest from the public gallery in the Texas House.

Demonstrators wearing red T-shirts reading "Lucha," or "fight" in Spanish, quietly filled hundreds of gallery seats as proceedings began. After about 40 minutes, they began to cheer, drowning out the lawmakers below.

Hundreds Protest Texas Anti-Sanctuary City Bill 0:54

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. Others waved banners reading: "See you in court!"

Texas' new law, often referred to as SB4 for "Senate Bill 4," is reminiscent of a 2010 Arizona "show your papers" measure — which allowed police to inquire about a person's immigration status during routine interactions such as traffic stops — that was eventually struck down in court.

Image: Demonstrators march in the Texas Capitol on May 29, 2017, protesting the state's newly passed anti-sanctuary cities bill in Austin, Texas.
Demonstrators march in the Texas Capitol on May 29, protesting the state's newly passed anti-sanctuary cities bill in Austin, Texas. Meredith Hoffman / AP

A legislative session that began in January concluded Monday, and the day is usually reserved for group photos and goodbyes. Lawmakers are constitutionally barred from approving most legislation on the last day.

Because of the protests, the Texas House leadership stopped the Memorial Day 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.

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 were then seen shouting at each other. A scuffle nearly ensued before other lawmakers separated the two.

At a news conference later Monday, several Democratic lawmakers accused Rinaldi of threatening to "put a bullet in the head" of Rep. Poncho Nevarez, a Democrat from the border town of Eagle Pass.

The lawmakers said the comments about gun play came during a second altercation moments after Rinaldi's encounter with Blanco.

Rinaldi said in a statement Monday afternoon that Nevarez had "threatened my life" on the House floor after he called ICE on several protesters holding signs saying that they were undocumented immigrants.

"When I told the Democrats I called ICE, Representative Ramon Romero physically assaulted me, and other Democrats were held back by colleagues," Rinaldi said in the statement.

Rinaldi said that Nevarez then threatened to "get me on the way to my car" and after allegedly repeating that threat, Rinaldi said he made clear he "would shoot him in self defense."

"I am currently under DPS [Texas Department of Public Safety] protection. Several of my colleagues heard the threats made and witnessed Ramon assaulting me,' he said.

ICE emailed a statement to NBC News Tuesday saying the agency "is not aware of receiving any calls related to this matter."

Nevarez responded to the incident on Twitter, calling Rinaldi a "liar and hateful man."

Under SB4, Texas police chiefs and sheriffs are required — under the threat of jail and removal from office — to comply with federal immigration authorities' requests to hold criminal suspects for possible deportation.

Police officers also have the option to ask the immigration status of anyone they stop. The bill was viewed as a crackdown on Austin and other so-called "sanctuary cities," a term that has no legal meaning but describes municipalities 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 Latinos to fight back.

"Fear motivated me to get involved," said Gallardo, a 26-year-old Mexican native who said she came to the United States when she was 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.

Daniella Silva reported on this story from New York