More than 350 US universities are urging President-elect Donald Trump to change his mind and keep a program that lets hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people study and avoid deportation.

Nicknamed “Dreamers,” they are the estimated 1.2 million young people who were brought to the United States illegally as children, grew up without US residency papers, finished high school and often speak better English than the language of their parents.

Some 740,000 of them have joined the DACA ( “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”), a program approved in 2012 by President Barack Obama that protects them from deportation.

It has brought some normalcy to their lives, but it is a program that Trump promised during the presidential campaign to eliminate “immediately” if he won.

While DACA does not grant the dreamers federal funds or the coveted “Green Card” — permanent residence and a work permit — it lets them study at university, get a job and have a driver’s license if they were in the country before the age of 16 and if they were under 31 in 2012.

It is renewable every two years.

– Waste of talent –

At the initiative of Pomona College president David Oxtoby, more than 350 universities, including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, UCLA, UC Berkeley and Stanford, signed a statement last week pledging to do what they can to protect their undocumented students, most of whom are DACA beneficiaries.

“To our country’s leaders we say that DACA should be upheld, continued, and expanded. We are prepared to meet with you to present our case,” the letter reads.

“This is both a moral imperative and a national necessity. America needs talent — and these students, who have been raised and educated in the United States, are already part of our national community.”

The statement was released after thousands of university students protested nationwide after Trump’s win, calling for their campuses to become “sanctuaries” where undocumented students are safe.

During the campaign, Trump cast DACA as an “illegal executive amnesty” by President Barack Obama.

But he never made clear whether ending it meant accepting no new applicants, or simply abolishing the whole program.

“It’s really a huge waste of talent not to continue and not to expand the DACA program,” Oxtoby told AFP. “These students are Americans in almost every dimension of the word, except in the geographical birthplace,” he said.

For Wendy Feliz, of the American Immigration Council, “it makes zero sense” to dismantle DACA when the state has already invested so much in these young people.

“Imagine being stripped of your driver’s license, being denied the right to go to college, getting your work permit taken away. It’s devastating for a young adult,” he said.

The definitive solution for these young people, a approval of a “Dream Act” bill granting them permanent residence, languished in Congress 15 years ago.

– Ready for the worst –

After his election, Trump said that he would first expel undocumented people with criminal records, which he estimated at two to three million people. Those who commit serious crimes are not eligible for DACA.

But some experts say Trump’s estimate of the number of undocumented immigrants is overinflated, but worry he may include the DACA dreamers in the three million number.

Obama himself urged Trump to “think long and hard” before eliminating the program and harming young people “who for all practical purposes are Americans.”

Some universities are already preparing for the worst.

“We will not allow immigration agents to enter our campus without a court order, nor will we share information about the immigration status of undocumented students with them unless required by a subpoena or court order,” Columbia University’s provost John Coatsworth, wrote in a message to all students.

Harvard University President Drew Faust announced Monday that she will expand a refugee and immigrant program at law school and have immigration experts provide legal assistance to the university’s 40 undocumented students, the Harvard Crimson reported.

Many big US cities with Democratic mayors, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, have also rejected Trump’s deportation plans and vow to protect their undocumented residents, even if it means losing millions in federal funds.

Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, said in an email to all students that if any of them lose the status that makes them eligible for in-state tuition, ASU will “seek financial support for the continued study of students … at ASU who graduated from Arizona high schools and who are qualified to attend the state universities — regardless of their immigration status.”