Hundreds of activists and borrowers traveled to the Supreme Court on Tuesday as President Joe Biden’s administration defended its sweeping student debt relief plan in oral arguments before the justices.
Some supporters of the program said they camped out the night before, braving freezing temperatures and rain, to watch the nearly four-hour questioning of Supreme Court justices in two cases challenging Biden — with most of the time spent on the lawsuit stemming from six GOP-led states that argued that Biden’s debt relief plan exceeded his legal authority, as the federal government argued that the states had no ability to try to block what they called critical economic relief .
Biden originally released the cancellation plan in August, intending to begin forgiving loans in late 2022. At the time, he had announced that his administration would forgive up to $10,000 of federal student loan debt per borrower as long as they had annual debt below $125,000 or $250,000. as a married couple and an additional $10,000 for recipients of Pell grants, which are given to low-income families.
But the plan, which the White House said could be used by about 40 million Americans, was stalled by lawsuits in November.
On Tuesday in Washington, the cases to decide the fate of the program turned out to be a young crowd of students and recent graduates from around the country.
Kiara Palmer, a 33-year-old who said she took on more than $50,000 in student loan debt while earning a master’s degree from American University, told ABC News that the Trump and Biden administrations halted payments for three years during the COVID-19 pandemic. – – a glimpse of what debt cancellation would look like — gave her breathing room to make a down payment on a house. This was a big step for her, she said, as her own mother had faced foreclosures on their home after taking out loans to get a teaching degree.
“I got to do something that I just didn’t think would ever happen,” Palmer said.
“When you’re in debt like that, $53,000 … you can’t focus on anything but that. And that hurts your ambitions, your future, your goals,” he said.
To people opposed to debt relief, Palmer cited taxpayer-funded bailouts during past turmoil as evidence that there is precedent.
“We have rescued many people. Why not save the next generation?’ he said.
Kianna Harrison and Kennedy Crawford, both students at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black institution, said they took a night bus to get to the Supreme Court in time for arguments. The trip was organized by the NAACP.
If the debt relief plan survives, it would wipe out both what Harrison and Crawford owe, they said — and reset the burden of student loans from generation to generation. They said they’ve watched their parents pay off student debt their entire lives.
“My mom is in her 40s and she still has loans, and that’s something that really scares me,” said Harrison, who wants to be a physician’s assistant when he graduates. “I don’t want to be like this.”
Harrison, who chose a school where she received both a partial scholarship and tuition, knew she would graduate with some debt no matter which college she chose to attend because of the systems in place. But he said he would like that attitude to change.
“Because it seems like in a sense we’re ashamed of an education — like you have to repay an education, like you did something wrong,” he said. “You’re going to look back on it in horror, and I don’t want to look at my education that way. I want to see it with pride, happiness.”
As Harrison spoke, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, both progressive lawmakers who have pushed the Biden administration to act to cancel the loan, took the podium in front of the Supreme Court, rallying the crowd and urging the justices to rule in favor their.
Sanders argued that without relief, younger borrowers will suffer setbacks under the burden of higher debt.
“I’ve talked to people all over this country who are literally delaying having a family, they can’t have kids, they can’t afford a car, they can’t afford to have a middle-class life because they’re drowning in their student debt,” she said. Sanders.
“In America, you shouldn’t face financial ruin because you want a damn education,” he said.
Warren, an attorney and former law professor, said she had read the HEROES Act — the law under which the Biden administration acted — and believes the plan is legal.
“We are here today because President Biden has the legal authority to cancel student loan debt. Let me say that one more time and let them hear it from the inside,” Warren said.
“It’s time for the Supreme Court to stop playing politics and just apply the law and let us cancel this debt,” he said.
But Republicans, both inside the court arguing the case and across from Capitol Hill, disagree.
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, chairwoman of the House Education and Workforce Committee, has called the program “illegal” since its initial release.
“(The borrowers are) in a legal limbo because the Biden administration is trying to do something it shouldn’t be doing,” Fox said in an interview.
“These people knowingly and willingly borrowed money to further their education. They should be held responsible for repaying their loans,” he added.
Foxx is one of the most passionate members of Congress fighting the plan, though more than 100 of her congressmen have signed court filings arguing that the Biden administration is using the HEROES Act, which gives the education secretary sweeping powers to relieve financial hardship for federal student loan recipients during a disaster, is outdated.
“He’s trying to use a law that was meant for something to help firefighters and police officers after 9/11,” Foxx said. “It’s illegal. It shouldn’t be done.”
But borrowers, braving the cold, rainy weather Tuesday morning, were more focused on the potential impact of getting their debt written off than on the means to get there.
“It would take a lot of stress off my family,” said Glenn Lopez, a freshman at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “It would take a lot of stress off of myself, really. And it really takes the stress and anxiety out of just having to think about it on a daily basis.”
Lopez estimates he will be up to $20,000 in debt after his first year.
Asked how many of his classmates he knows are also taking out loans to pay for school, he said: “All of them. Everyone I know.”
ABC News’ Jay O’Brien contributed to this report.