Texas legislature descends into chaos after GOP lawmaker sics immigration officers on protesters

Lawmakers scuffled briefly on the state House floor.

Protesters occupying the Texas legislature’s rotunda on Memorial Day. CREDIT: Abbie Kamin
Protesters occupying the Texas legislature’s rotunda on Memorial Day. CREDIT: Abbie Kamin

Protesters swarmed the Texas legislature and lawmakers shoved each other on the final day of the legislative session Monday, as tensions flared over a bill signed this week requiring local law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal immigration officers.

The mass of chanting, sign-waving voters forced legislative proceedings to a halt late Monday morning before state troopers cleared the gallery. The protesters occupied all four floors of the state capitol rotunda as lawmakers resumed last-day business.

The disruption so frustrated one Republican member, state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, that he decided to call in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.

When Rinaldi told a group of Democratic colleagues what he’d done, a shoving match broke out between lawmakers on the floor. Local reporters said the capitol’s parliamentarian stepped in to separate the politicians before the situation escalated further.

Rinaldi had walked up to a group of Hispanic Democrats to volunteer the anecdote, a local reporter said. Some of Rinaldi’s fellow Republicans later apologized to the group for his behavior, Rep. Cesar Blanco (D) told reporters.

Rinaldi’s actions demonstrate the arguments that critics of the state’s new immigration enforcement law have prepared to make in lawsuits. Rinaldi’s phone call “ has just given #SB4 #txlege protestors fodder for their court case. If you see Latinos and call ICE, that’s profiling,” longtime Texas political reporter Bud Kennedy wrote on Twitter.

The law at the center of Monday’s discord is destined for the courts. El Paso County and others have already filed suit, saying the law violates the Constitution. The American Civil Liberties Union has joined a lawsuit seeking to stop the bill — and published a national “travel advisory” warning that visitors to Texas may have their constitutional rights violated.

The legislation requires local authorities to aggressively enforce federal immigration law and punishes any agency, official, or officer who does not comply. The law is aimed at so-called “sanctuary cities,” the most common epithet for communities that decide their local interests are better served by not asking local residents about their immigration status.

Many law enforcement leaders and groups advocate for sanctuary policies and oppose conservative policies cracking down on local sovereignty on immigration enforcement. Texas-style policies have a chilling effect on Latino residents’ relationship with public safety officers, effectively cutting them off from law enforcement’s assistance.

Those criticisms have not stopped Republicans in many parts of the country from trying to overrule local decision makers and punish “sanctuary” towns. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have threatened to withhold federal funding from such jurisdictions in retaliation.

The aggressive mode of immigration enforcement which conservatives favor from local cops lends itself to racial profiling. The early months of 2017 have seen numerous viral incidents where officers not explicitly empowered to enforce immigration laws have nonetheless taken it upon themselves to do so in controversial circumstances.

In one video from Minnesota, a local transit cop is seen asking a train passenger if he is undocumented. In another recent case from south Florida, an officer responding to a pedestrian who’d been hit by a car asked the injured man about his immigration status and appeared to arrange for border agents to round him up after he was treated for his injuries.

As of press time, the Texas protesters had been forced out of the capitol itself and were marching to encircle the building.