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Immigration 101: The Senate Parliamentarian and Immigration

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By Andrea Fatima Rojas

The Senate Parliamentarian has been front and center in the fight for immigration reform in 2021. While not publicly visible, she has played a major role in determining the future of 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.. 


The Senate Parliamentarian is a non-partisan, non-elected advisor to the Senate.  She provides feedback and answers about the chamber’s legislative rules, precedents, and practices. The main duties of the Senate Parliamentarian are:

  • Ensure proper parliamentary procedures are followed in the Senate
  • Publish rules and precedents of the chamber to the public
  • Provide written guidance to legislators on their legislative endeavors
  • Interpret Senate rules and precedents on bills and committee proceedings
  • Provide non-binding, but legal advice on bills and procedures based on prior proceedings or Senate rules that the presiding Senator may accept or ignore

The Senate Parliamentarian – or a representative from the Office of the Senate Parliamentarian –  is present at all Senate meetings. Their services are for all members of the Senate and available before or during meetings

The House of Representatives also has a parliamentarian. He is elected by the Senate Majority Leader. As of September 2020, the House Parliamentarian is Jason Smith.  


Since 2012, Elizabeth MacDonough has been the Senate Parliamentarian. She is the first woman to ever hold the position since its creation in 1935. She received her Bachelor’s degree in English from George Washington University, and attended Vermont Law School. She briefly served as an assistant district counsel for the U.S Justice Department before becoming the senior assistant parliamentarian of the same department in 1999. She held that position for 13 years before her appointment as the Senate Parliamentarian in 2012 by then-Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. 

MacDonough has earned both praise and criticism from Republicans and Democrats during her tenure. In 2015, she emphasized budget rules that made it difficult for Senate Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act,  an Obama-era health care policy. In February  2021, MacDonough ruled that a clause that would have raised minimum wage to $15 an hour could not be included in the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion March stimulus package as she determined that the clause did follow strict reconciliation rules, which allows for the majority power to pass with a 51-50 vote in the Senate.


The position was officially created in 1935, after Charles Watkins, the first Senate parliamentarian, had been serving as the unofficial procedure advisor on the floor since 1923. The position was introduced to assist senators in following Senate procedures. Since its creation in 1935, there have been 6 different Senate parliamentarians with two individuals – Robert Dove and Alan Frumin – serving two separate tenures each. 

Today, the purpose of the Senate Parliamentarian is to serve as a non-partisan figure that both parties can depend on for advice on procedures and legislation as senators no longer have time to learn about Senate procedures due to packed schedules.


The Senate Parliamentarian has the power to decide what can and cannot be included in pieces of legislation – including immigration. Her decision determines whether or not certain issues have an opportunity to advance in the legislative process and be taken up for a vote. 

Since the position of the Senate Parliamentarian was created, immigration proposals have been brought up for review several times. Four of those times, the Senate Parliamentarian has approved and allowed immigration proposals to be included in budget reconciliation bills.  

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When Joe Biden and Democrats ran for office in 2020, they promised they would get immigration reform passed one way or another. In the November 2020 election, voters elected Joe Biden as president and gave Democrats the majority in the House and in the Senate on the premise that they would deliver. 

As expected, Republican members of Congress opposed any and all immigration legislation proposals in the new administration, leaving Democrats to try to pass immigration reform through the budget reconciliation process and at the hands of the Senate Parliamentarian once again. 

Normally, an immigration reform bill in the Senate would need 60 votes to pass; however, Democrats, through the reconciliation process, would be able to pass an immigration reform within a budget reconciliation package with a 51-50 vote in the Senate.

In September and October 2021, Senate Democrats presented the Senate Parliamentarian with two immigration proposals. And both times, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough rejected the different proposals. Her reasoning was that immigration reform has no place within a budget reconciliation bill. “Changing the law to clear the way to (lawful permanent resident) status is tremendous and enduring policy change that dwarfs its budgetary impact,” she wrote in her ruling against the proposals. 

The third immigration proposal was rejected in December 2021 because it extended too many rights passed under the budget reconciliation process. It would have granted 6.5 million immigrants a temporary parole status to work and travel.

Be sure to follow America’s Voice on Facebook and Twitter for all the latest developments on the Senate Parlimentarian’s decision.