Armando Walle didn’t realize he was being recorded. The Democratic state representative from Houston was frustrated. Republican members of the Texas House had put forward a bill that would empower police officers to apprehend, arrest, or send back migrants who cross the border illegally. As Republicans moved to halt additional amendments on the matter, Walle went to confront state representative Cody Harris, of Palestine, who had filed the motion to do so. His colleagues, he said, were attempting to pass a contentious bill without having to fully defend it. 

But it wasn’t just the single late-night motion that prompted Walle’s confrontation. Rather, he said, it was a compounding effort by the Lege’s Republicans throughout his nearly sixteen years at the Capitol to pass anti-immigration laws in an attempt to appease a growing segment of the GOP’s voters. “The Holy Ghost came out,” he told me. “The years of frustration and passion to represent my community came out. I’m not ashamed at all and I would do it all over again if it means standing up for my constituents.” His appeal fell on deaf ears. The ban on Democrats proposing amendments remained in effect. The bill—along with two other measures to beef up border security—passed the House in the wee hours of the morning. 

Measures limiting immigration have become political catnip at the Legislature for Republicans. Walle said that the events captured on video are not wholly representative of how he feels toward many of his colleagues. Without giving names, he said some Republicans spoke with him afterward and “expressed sympathy” about how the process was ultimately handled.  

Of course, Democratic lawmakers are in the minority, and there are only so many political maneuvers they can attempt to stall bills. Walle said he knew his party’s votes couldn’t stop the bills from passing, but “I’m going to speak up about it,” he said. “Some of these guys are my friends. Some of these guys I know well, but I also know that I’m not going to sit down and take this lying down.” 

Of all the issues that feed Republicans’ total control of state government, immigration policy, and the xenophobic rhetoric that often accompanies it, is arguably the most successful. A University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll found that more than one third of the state’s voters cited immigration or border security as the most important problem facing Texas. Republicans (60 percent) and a plurality of independents (43 percent) were far more likely than Democrats (9 percent) to identify it as the most pressing issue. But some Democratic voters, especially Hispanic South Texans, have expressed frustration with their party’s border policies, citing an apparent increase of migrants in certain South Texas counties. Democrats have gradually been losing their share of Latino voters, even as opposition to immigration has become more openly nativist. 

This year the GOP is engaged in another legislative effort to curb immigration into Texas. One of the other two bills passed would appropriate $1.5 billion to build border barriers along different parts of the Texas-Mexico border; the other increases the minimum sentence for smuggling immigrants or operating a stash house. The video—filmed by Democratic state representative Ana-Maria Ramos, of Richardson, who called the Republicans who tried to limit floor debate “cowards”—quickly made the rounds on X. Republican lawmakers responded in the traditional manner of the internet: by decrying Ramos’s name-calling—rather than the substance of the protest—and saying that her and Walle’s jabs were in poor taste given the party’s walkout two years ago. (In 2021, several Democrats left the state in a last-ditch effort to prevent the passage of a restrictive new voting rights law, breaking quorum and delaying the bill from passing during the regular legislative session, though it did get signed into law later that year.)

“What happened is the product of special sessions and issues that can be controversial,” said state representative Justin Holland, a Rockwall Republican, who was caught in the middle of the scuffle. “It was a long day and we’re in our third special session, so people are getting a little tired and the days can be frustrating.” He acknowledged that the Legislature was passing a lot of “controversial” bills in part because the GOP base believes they’re important and are “driving its agenda.”

Immigration has long been an issue Republicans make hay of in the Capitol. But the debate in the Lege has evolved—or devolved—from being mostly about how to deal with undocumented Americans already living and working in the country—a  focus of the 2015 legislative session—to how to respond to crises, some real and some manufactured, across the Southern border. Many Democrats, including Walle, acknowledge that there are issues with current border policy, but even fellow Republicans have argued that members of their party have politicized border-related issues for political gain. Some rank-and-file Democrats are adopting the GOP’s rhetoric, too, when it comes to immigration, but there are long-standing fissures within the party on how to best address it. 

There is room for disagreement. So limiting floor debate is seen as a major escalation. Even in 2017, when the passage of a contentious immigration bill almost resulted in a physical confrontation, Republicans had allowed hours of debate before passing the measure.

“We know we’re not going to win these votes as Democrats. That’s a reality. I can count,” Walle said. “But I also know that I’ve worked in a bipartisan way to try to solve problems.” The effort to cease debate on this bill before Democrats could propose all of the amendments they wanted, was, he said, unprecedented and “un-American.” 

Though Walle didn’t use such strong language himself, other Democrats, such as Ramos, criticized members of the opposing party for not allowing full debate on their “trash bills.” Asked for comment on some of the language used to describe fellow Republicans and their measures, Holland said that nearly everyone, at least once, has “lost their cool” at the Capitol, but he reassured me that he had a deep love and respect for his Democratic colleagues. 

As videos of the exchange went viral, Governor Greg Abbott made four posts about the Southern border. Thursday morning, he signaled his excitement at signing all three bills headed to his desk. “This has been a key priority since Day 1,” he wrote.