Hundreds of activists and borrowers traveled to the Supreme Court on Tuesday as President Joe Biden’s administration defended its sweeping student debt cancellation plan in oral arguments before the justices.
Some supporters of the program said they camped out the night before, weathering the low temperatures and rain, to witness the Supreme Court justices' nearly four-hour questioning in two cases challenging Biden -- with the bulk of the time lending itself to the lawsuit brought by six GOP-led states, which contended that Biden’s debt forgiveness plan overstepped his legal authority as the federal government argued the states had no standing to try and block what they called crucial economic relief.
Biden initially rolled out his cancellation plan in August, intending to begin forgiving loans in late 2022. He announced at the time that his administration would forgive up to $10,000 of federal student loan debt per borrower, so long as they annually made under $125,000 or $250,000 as a married couple, and an additional $10,000 for people who received Pell grants, which are given to low-income families.
But the plan, which the White House has said could be used by some 40 million Americans, was halted by lawsuits in November.
On Tuesday in Washington, the cases to decide the fate of the program turned out a young crowd of college students and recent graduates from around the country.
Kiara Palmer, a 33-year-old who said she incurred more than $50,000 in student loan debt while getting a master’s degree from American University, told ABC News that the Trump and Biden administrations pausing payments for three years during the COVID-19 pandemic -- a taste of what debt cancellation would look like -- gave her breathing room to put down a payment on a house. That was a big step for her, she said, since her own mother had faced foreclosures on their house 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 a debt like that, $53,000 … you can't focus on anything but that. And that hurts your aspirations, your future, your goals,” she said.
To people who oppose debt relief, Palmer cited taxpayer-funded economic assistance during previous turmoil as evidence that there’s precedent.
“We've bailed out many folks. Why not bail out the next generation?” she said.
Kianna Harrison and Kennedy Crawford, both students at North Carolina A&T State University, a historically Black institution, said they took an overnight bus to get to the Supreme Court in time for arguments. The trip was organized by the NAACP.
If the debt forgiveness plan survives, it would wipe out both of what Harrison and Crawford owe, they said -- and put a reset on a generational burden of student loans. They said they have watched their parents pay off student debts their entire lives.
“My mom's in her late 40s and still has loans and that's something that really scares me,” said Harrison, who wants to be a physician’s assistant when she graduates. “I don't want to be like that.”
Harrison, who chose a school where she received both a partial scholarship and in-state tuition, knew she would graduate with some debt no matter which college she chose to go to because of the systems in place. She said she wishes that attitude would change, though.
“Because it seems like in a sense we're kind of being shamed for an education -- like you have to pay back an education, like you did something wrong,” she said. “You'll look back at it with dread, and that's not how I want to view my education. I want to look at it with pride, happiness.”
As Harrison spoke, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, both progressive lawmakers who pressured the Biden administration to act on loan cancellation, took the podium in front of the Supreme Court, rallying the crowd and urging the justices to rule in their favor.
Sanders argued that without relief, younger borrowers would endure setbacks under the weight of higher debts.
“I have talked to people all over this country who literally delay having a family, can't have any 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,” Sanders said.
“In America, you should not have to face financial ruin because you want a damn education,” he said.
Warren, a lawyer and former law professor, said that she’d read the HEROES Act -- the law that the Biden administration acted under -- 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 make ‘em hear it inside,” Warren said.
“It is time for the Supreme Court to stop playing politics and just apply the law and let us cancel this debt,” she said.
But Republicans, both inside the court arguing the case and across the street at Capitol Hill, staunchly disagree.
North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has called the program “illegal” since its initial rollout.
“[Borrowers are] in legal limbo because the Biden administration is trying to do something it shouldn't do,” Foxx said in an interview.
“These people knowingly and willingly borrowed money to advance their education. They should be held responsible to pay back their loans,” she added.
Foxx is one of the most passionate members fighting against the plan in Congress, though more than 100 members of her conference signed onto court filings asserting that the Biden administration’s use of the HEROES Act, which gives the education secretary with expansive authority to alleviate financial hardship for federal student loan recipients during a disaster, is outdated.
“He is trying to use a law that was intended for something to help firefighters and police officers after 9/11,” Foxx said. “It's illegal. It shouldn't be done.”
But borrowers, who braved the cold, rainy conditions on Tuesday morning, were more focused on the potential impact of their debts being forgiven than the means to get there.
“It would take a lot of stress off my family,” said Glenn Lopez, a freshman attending Morgan State University in Baltimore. “It would take a lot of stress off of myself, really. And it really takes away the anxiety and stress of just having to think about it on a daily basis.”
Lopez estimates that he’ll have 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, “Everyone. Everyone I know.”
ABC News' Jay O'Brien contributed to this report.