AUSTIN, Texas — 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 hard-line 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. 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.
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, and the day was supposed to be reserved for goofy group photos and sappy good-byes. Lawmakers are constitutionally barred from approving most legislation on the last day.
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 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.
Texas' new law requires police chiefs and sheriffs — under the threat of jail and removal from office — to comply with federal requests to hold criminal suspects for possible deportation.
Police also can ask the immigration status of anyone they stop. The bill was viewed as a crackdown on Austin and other "sanctuary cities," a term that has no legal meaning but describes parts of the country 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 grass roots resistance against it.
Abril Gallardo rode 15 hours in a van to Austin to urge fellow Hispanics to fight back.
"Fear motivated me to get involved," said Gallardo, a 26-year-old Mexican native who entered the U.S. illegally at age 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.
But even as some vowed to fight, others have begun fleeing the state. Their ranks are still too small to quantify, but a larger exodus — similar to what occurred in Arizona — could have a profound effect on the Texas economy. The state has more than 1 million immigrants illegally in the country, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Some are abandoning Texas for more liberal states, where they feel safer — even if it means relinquishing lives they've spent years building.