Home Los Angeles News Borrowers rally on Capitol Hill before student debt arguments at Supreme Court

Borrowers rally on Capitol Hill before student debt arguments at Supreme Court

Borrowers rally on Capitol Hill before student debt arguments at Supreme Court

More than a hundred student borrowers, activists and allies from around the nation are camping overnight outside of the Supreme Court in anticipation of hearings on Tuesday, Feb. 28 focused on legal challenges to President Biden’s student debt relief program.

At an estimated cost of $400 billion, the program’s application period opened in October, but a federal judge in Texas halted the program in November, deeming it “unlawful.” As a result, more than 26 million borrowers remain in limbo, including 16 million who have been officially approved for relief.

In November 2022, a coalition of attorneys, advocates, labor unions and experts filed a series of amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the student debt relief program.

Jonathon Herrera never had a room of his own before he moved into his dorm at Santa Clara University. The first in his family to go to a university, he got a full scholarship. As a son of undocumented low-income immigrants in East Los Angeles he still had to work — and needed more than $10,000 in loans.

“A lot of people that come from similar backgrounds as myself have been pushed back from higher education historically,” said Herrera. “I think this is just adding on to us not being able to save that 10 to 20K that we use to pay back those loans and, you know, put it as a down payment in a house investment or in our own businesses.”

Students waited overnight to hear Supreme Court oral arguments on the matter of college debt. (Photo Courtesy of Rise, Inc.)
Students waited overnight to hear Supreme Court oral arguments on the matter of college debt. (Photo Courtesy of Rise, Inc.)

After earning a political science degree, Herrera wanted to move back to his family home but knew there wasn’t room. Debt forgiveness would help him buy a property where his family could live.

“That’s what my mom has always wanted. She wants her own space. She wants her own garden. And I want to give that to her,” Herrera said.

The Monday sit in was hosted by We The 45 Million, MoveOn.org and Rise, and included student borrowers sharing their stories about their debts, a jazz and drum band performance, and late night eats.

Melissa Byrne, founder of We The 45 Million, said the purpose of the sit in was twofold: To show support for the program and to secure a place in line for student loan borrowers to sit in on courtroom arguments — and prevent opposition lobbyists from filling the courtroom seats. The 50-100 seats in the courtroom are first come, first serve.

Ambalika Williams, national director of organizing at Rise, co-hosted the sit in and is one of the more than 40 million Americans with student loans impacted by this case.

The weather in D.C. was cold and wet, but those gathered overnight were not allowed to use tents. Despite the shivering, Williams said everyone was fired up and determined to attend oral arguments.

“A lot of students that we interact with have to deal with housing insecurity or food insecurity,” Williams said. “We don’t really set up young people up for success oftentimes when they’re in the pursuit of higher education. While they’re also facing some pretty severe economic hardship, they’re also accumulating thousands of dollars in student loan debt at the same time … this is a fight for their lives and it’s the fight for their future.”

On Feb. 28, two challenges to President Biden’s student loan relief program will be heard by the Supreme Court. Its decision later this year will likely determine the fate of the program.

The first challenge, Biden v. Nebraska, is led by a group of six Republican officials from Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas and South Carolina who argue that debt forgiveness violates the separation of powers and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The second challenge, DOE v. Brown is backed by a right-wing group representing one plaintiff who received  government loan forgiveness, and a second who qualified for President Biden’s student loan relief program.

The Supreme Court will decide later this year whether the student loan relief plan exceeds the Department of Education’s authority, and confirm whether the two lawsuits have legal standing.

The Biden Administration argues that a 2003 law grants the executive branch the power to discharge the federal student loan debt in the event of a national emergency such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

On the morning of the opening arguments, the Young Invincibles along with more than 25 other advocacy organizations will rally on the steps of the Supreme Court. Young Invincibles, a nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the voices of young adults, has advocated for student debt reforms since 2009.

Kristin McGuire, executive director of Young Invincibles, is a Covina resident and first-generation college student from a single-parent household. She understands the perils of predatory student loan debt. To attend Cal State Dominguez Hills, she signed on for $24,000 in loans. Today, her balance has ballooned to more than $55,000.

She said her story is not exceptional, but is experienced by many, especially Black and brown women. “We have low-income people — they went to college, they have higher loan balances, which means higher loan payments, and then enter the workforce and don’t make as much money,” McGuire said.

“They cannot pay these high loan balances, and then they default,” she said. “The default goes on your credit. It then prevents you from doing things like purchasing a home or starting a family, which is then another barrier to creating generational wealth and folks being able to attain economic opportunity.”

According to Education Data Initiative, the outstanding federal loan balance is more than $1 trillion and accounts for 92.4% of all student loan debt. The average public university student signs up for $31,000 to attain a bachelor’s degree. Four years after graduation, 48% of Black student borrowers owe more than they initially borrowed while only 17% of white student borrowers owe more.

McGuire calls it the “perfect storm.”

Mario Mendoza of Montclair says the $20,000 forgiven from his estimated $60,000 debt is the difference between simply surviving and truly living.

“We forgive so many loans and do so many forgivenesses for corporations and very wealthy individuals,” Mendoza said. “We never heard a backlash with the Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness, yet here we are for something so simple — it’s a giant backlash.”

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the borrowers, after Mendoza finishes his master’s degree in public policy, he could focus on paying back his debt like a car loan. This, he said, would mean he could focus on ending the cycle of poverty for others, by engaging and consulting with small Hispanic-serving nonprofit organizations and universities.

While arguments will be heard this month, the Supreme Court’s decision will not be known until June.

The February 28 rally can be watched live at www.cancelmystudentdebt.org.

“I think what we all can agree on is that the student debt crisis has really just imploded and really put a laser focus on economic inequality in our country,” McGuire said. “It is good advice to go to college — it will always be good advice to go to college. But what shouldn’t happen is that these student loan industries are able to make such a profit off of folks trying to do their best and go to college.”

She added, “We have to start to think about what we can do to remove these barriers — if our aim is for everyone to have access to the American dream.”