Months ago, Senate Democrats let Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough kill their chance to pass a $15 minimum wage. When MacDonough, the unelected staffer who interprets the rules of the chamber, decided that a plan to gradually increase the minimum wage didn’t fit Senate rules, Democrats could have ignored the nonbinding opinion or fired her for standing in the way of their agenda, as Republicans have done in the past. Instead, they did nothing about it. Now, as the party rushes to resolve its social spending bill, Democrats are hiding behind the parliamentarian again. This time, they could blow their last chance to establish protections for undocumented immigrants, a promise they’ve campaigned on for decades.
MacDonough has already ruled against two separate proposals to provide millions a pathway to permanent residence. She called the plan “not appropriate” for reconciliation, the arcane budget process Democrats are using to pass their $1.75 trillion social spending bill. MacDonough’s position bestows a patina of neutrality, but in her case, the power to determine the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants is held by a former deportation prosecutor. MacDonough, as the online news collective Latino Rebels reported this week, was previously a trial attorney for the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, a job that involved handling deportation cases.
“Well, it’s the first that I’m hearing that,” said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders when asked about the parliamentarian’s record. “But I trust that the parliamentarian will do her job independently and objectively.” Sanders added that he’s had “many disagreements” with MacDonough, including on the minimum wage. “I think there’s an absolute conflict of interest,” New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The Nation. “She should have been recused on these rulings, and I still think she should be recused.” Activist groups like RAICES Texas have also expressed concern about MacDonough’s past, saying that she “cannot be trusted to rule objectively on immigration issues.”
At least three members of Congress—Representatives Adriano Espaillat of New York, Chuy García of Illinois, and Lou Correa of California—signaled that they would not support a reconciliation bill without immigration reform. Democrats initially tried to grant an estimated 8 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to permanent residence through the bill, focusing on people in four categories: those granted temporary protected status, those deemed “essential workers” during the pandemic, farm workers, and Dreamers. After a second proposal was also rejected, Democrats began devising a Plan C.
“I don’t want to make this about the parliamentarian,” Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz said. “I think the problem is that we’ve tied ourselves in knots, as an institution, with rules that make it very difficult to function. If we don’t like a ruling on the part of the parliamentarian, then we just need to muster a majority to change the rule.”
The Democrats’ social spending package, which accompanies a smaller, lobbyist-drafted infrastructure bill, is widely considered their last chance to meaningfully address climate change, implement crucial anti-poverty measures, and provide relief for immigrants. But the Democratic leadership hasn’t been as willing as the GOP’s to do what it takes to pass legislation that reflects party priorities. At least 40 House Democrats, including Representatives Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Pramila Jayapal, who leads the Progressive Caucus, as well as immigrant rights groups, are calling on top Senate Democrats to disregard the ruling on immigration reform.
“In denying any possible pathway to citizenship or lawful permanent residents (LPRs) status, the Parliamentarian, an un-elected official, is denying the economic impact of such legislation and the tributes that millions of undocumented individuals have paid to this country,” the lawmakers wrote to Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer late last month.
Rico Ocampo, an organizer with the activist group Make the Road Nevada and a DACA recipient, told The Nation that failing to include a pathway to citizenship in the social spending bill would reveal the “failed promises that Democrats have for the past two decades shared with the undocumented community.”
“We have over 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, many of whom during the pandemic kept this country afloat,” Ocampo said. “Many of those undocumented immigrants were able to help organize their family members to vote in the 2020 election.”
Though the two Democratic holdouts on reconciliation haven’t come out against specific provisions, one of them, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, told Latino Rebels in October that he believed immigration reform is “too big” to end up in the bill. “I don’t think it’s going to be in there. I really don’t,” he said. “I think it’s too big for that.”