Texas Lawmaker Scuffle Reveals ‘Extremism’ in Immigration Policy

“Ever since Trump rolled down that golden elevator, people feel free to say these racist things."

“Those are exactly the kind of people who support SB 4. What’s more alarming to me is the people who are wearing metaphorical white hoods who are brazen enough to say more watered-down versions and who have real power. They’re more calculated about it, they’re smarter. We just saw a ‘smart guy,’ Rinaldi, show his hand yesterday,” said Rep. Alfonso Nevarez. Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

A scuffle between Texas house lawmakers broke out Monday after Rep. Matt Rinaldi (R) told Democratic Latino Reps. Ramón Romero, Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, and César Blanco that he had called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on people in the house gallery who were there protesting the anti-immigrant law known as SB 4.

Rinaldi wrote in a Facebook post that he called immigration officials “on several illegal immigrants who held signs in the gallery which said ‘I am illegal and here to stay,’” though organizers behind the protest told Rewire no such signs were present. Whether Rinaldi called ICE was unclear until Wednesday night, when an ICE spokesperson went back on its initial statement claiming no such call was made. As the Austin American-Statesman reported, an official has now confirmed that “immigration authorities fielded a hotline call Monday related to Capitol protesters of the pending state law intended to stop communities from shielding unauthorized immigrants.”

Romero told Rewire on Tuesday that he saw Rinaldi on his cell phone and then saw the lawmaker showing his phone to other Republicans. Rep. Briscoe Cain posted a video on his Facebook page of Rinaldi allegedly calling ICE, according to Romero, but the video has since been deleted.

“We were about 40 or 50 feet away from Rinaldi, who decides to come up to Blanco and I and say, ‘This is ridiculous [referring to the protesters].’ He looks at us and says, ‘I called ICE.’ I responded, ‘Why, so you can get in the media and say you’re a badass dude and you called immigration on illegals?’ He said, ‘That’s right. Fuck ’em.’”

Rinaldi did not respond to Rewire‘s requests for comment by publication time.

The lawmaker has since asserted that Nevarez threatened his life and that Romero “physically assaulted” him, which is why the lawmaker is reportedly under Department of Public Safety (DPS) protection. None of the Latino lawmakers who spoke to Rewire are under DPS protection, including Nevarez, who Rinaldi allegedly threatened to shoot in the head. Romero told Rewire he is receiving death threats and Blanco’s office is receiving phone calls in support of Rinaldi. In one recording posted online by Blanco, a man says, “I stand with Matt Rinaldi and fuck the illegal alien spics.” He ends the call by saying “white power.”

Cristina Parker, immigration projects coordinator at the Austin-based immigrant rights organization Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire it didn’t matter if Rinaldi called ICE.

“Whether he said it as a joke or he actually did it, neither surprises me. Honestly, I’m not sure what would be worse, actually calling ICE or thinking it’s funny to make that kind of statement,” Parker said. “Rinaldi instigated this whole thing and it doesn’t surprise me that he’s now playing the victim, that’s what bullies do. He got riled up, wanted to puff out his chest, but is now saying he was threatened. It’s manipulative and abusive, but that’s how bullies are. It’s what they do.”

The coordinator was present at the House on Monday, but did not witness the scuffle, as protesters had been kicked out of the gallery by the time the fight erupted.

Parker told Rewire the death threats and phone calls Latino lawmakers have received do not surprise her. In her daily work, she sees how closely aligned white supremacists are with the anti-immigrant movement. This includes the Trump administration placing former leaders of anti-immigrant hate groups with ties to white nationalism into key federal immigration roles.

That Rinaldi and his Texas GOP colleagues haven’t “spoken out against” the racist phone calls and death threats his Latino colleagues are receiving “speaks volumes.”

“This is all a very fitting end to a session that’s been ugly and extremist. But there’s a part of me that feels like… Rinaldi is just being more honest than someone like the governor, who says [SB 4] isn’t about race and discrimination. Obviously for Matt Rinaldi, it absolutely is,” Parker said. “I think he spoke inadvertently to the truth of what SB 4 is really about and what some of the extremist, anti-immigrant Republicans in our legislature truly feel.”

On May 7, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed SB 4, a law banning so-called sanctuary cities and authorizing Texas police officers to essentially racially profile anyone they suspect of being in the country without authorization. The law, which goes into effect September 1, penalizes law enforcement officials who don’t comply with ICE detainer requests. These requests are a key immigration enforcement tool in which ICE submits a written request asking a local jail or other law enforcement agency to detain an undocumented person for an additional 48 hours (excluding weekends and holidays) after their release date to provide ICE agents extra time to take that person into federal custody.

Romero told Rewire he took a video this session of house GOP lawmakers staring at pro-immigration protesters “with their mouths wide open.”

“You can see their fear. They don’t like what they see because they see a lot of Hispanics who are engaged,” Romero said.

Rinaldi, whose campaign website says he is the son of an Italian immigrant “who came to America legally,” was told by Romero that his people were discriminated against much like the Irish, and that SB 4 “was discrimination against my people,” Romero said.

“I wanted him to understand that, and to understand that SB 4 discriminates against my people,” Romero said. “His response was, ‘But the difference was my family loved this country and yours doesn’t.’ He said that on Memorial Day to three Latino representatives, two of which are veterans and one the son of immigrants from Zacatecas who is a public servant. Rinaldi looked into that crowd, and maybe at us, and saw ‘illegals.’ I can’t think of a better scenario to illustrate the fear people will feel because of SB 4. You have people like him, who believe they can call ICE on anyone they think looks ‘illegal.’ Because of this law, we’re going to see this play out over and over again.”

Romero meant the scenario would play out over and over again in Texas, but because of President Trump’s Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, taxpayers are footing the bill for what advocates told Rewire is “a hunt for immigrants.” Run by ICE, the office purports to “serve the needs of crime victims and their families who have been impacted by crimes committed by removable criminal aliens.” The office allows U.S. citizens to call and report anyone they suspect of being undocumented who has allegedly committed a crime.

Julieta Garibay is the campaigns director at United We Dream, one of the organizations behind Monday’s action at the Texas house. Garibay told Rewire that Rinaldi’s actions “perfectly illustrate” what Trump wanted to accomplish with the anti-immigrant executive order that created the VOICE office.

The VOICE office “is a clear campaign to vilify immigrants and people of color and to make their neighbors afraid of them, with the goal of deporting them,” the director said. “Rinaldi’s behavior was disgusting, but we’ve seen these kinds of attitudes in Texas before. The big difference now is that under Trump, they’re taking the white sheets off and they’re being blatantly racist. They are emboldened.”

This was echoed by Romero and Nevarez, who told Rewire that Rinaldi’s urge to inform his Latino colleagues that he called ICE on protesters speaks to a larger “ongoing” problem in Texas, and nationwide.

In Tarrant County, where Romero was elected in 2014, his opponent, former Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth), who lost his re-election bid by 111 votes, filed a lawsuit challenging the results. Burnam believed Romero ran an “illegal computerized-signature vote-by-mail operation,” the Star-Telegram reported in October. Much like Trump’s “birther claims” about President Obama not being a U.S. citizen, Burnam’s baseless charges have led to Romero seeing a barrage of comments delegitimizing his electoral win.

“All of these years later and my opponent still hasn’t given up. He says I won illegally because I taught Latinos how to vote by mail. This guy literally still trolls me about it, saying I got here illegitimately,” Romero said. “Here in Texas, when you get to this level, we’re still told we’re thugs; that we’re doing something illegal; that we got here by illegal means. These same people will say it’s not racist, but those like me who know, know.”

Navarez said he will no longer stand for such disrespect, telling Rewire he is less concerned about the scuffle and Rinaldi’s threats, but rather the GOP legislator feeling emboldened to say he called ICE on a group of Latinos he assumed were undocumented based on their appearance.

“Ever since Trump rolled down that golden elevator, people feel free to say these racist things. Our lieutenant governor [Dan Patrick], who’s been sucking up to Trump since he won the primary, also emboldens a person like Rinaldi. This thing started in the Senate with SB 4 and our lieutenant governor is the main driver. We have a governor who doesn’t want to check him; who’s jumping on this thing wholeheartedly. That’s the problem. In these two statewide elected officials, we have some very dangerous leadership that is speaking to a very small minority who are very vocal.”

Patrick has referred to immigration into Texas as “an invasion” and that immigrants are bringing “third-world diseases.”

Nevarez said he is “not at all” surprised by the kind of racist phone calls his Latino colleagues are fielding as a result of Monday’s scuffle, or the fact that these callers are voicing their support of Rinaldi.

“Those are exactly the kind of people who support SB 4. What’s more alarming to me is the people who are wearing metaphorical white hoods who are brazen enough to say more watered-down versions and who have real power. They’re more calculated about it, they’re smarter. We just saw a ‘smart guy,’ Rinaldi, show his hand,” Nevarez said.

Garibay said that while members of United We Dream are committed to fighting back against anti-immigrant laws like SB 4, they are afraid of what’s to come. Garibay’s mother, who made a home in Austin 25 years ago as an undocumented immigrant, has voiced her fear of walking down the street or going grocery shopping and not knowing who among her is a racist capable of violence.

Parker told Rewire that Rinaldi wasn’t setting a precedent, but rather “following right in line” with a spike in hateful acts and crimes since Trump won the White House.

“People are no longer ashamed to be called Nazis or white supremacists, and these people are really riled up against immigrants, Muslims, and other folks of color,” Parker said. “I’m thinking a lot of Portland and what happened here in Texas, how people are calling the Senate office and saying ‘white power.’ How a representative is said to have made a serious threat of violence. For me, there’s a lot of fear in what these radicalized white supremacists will do and with this kind of hate speech becoming so normalized, how do you know which ones will actually carry out violence?”

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to include ICE’s reversal that it did in fact field a hotline call regarding Monday night’s scuffle.