LEWISTON — Bates College President Clayton Spencer this month joined more than 250 higher education leaders across the country who called it “both a moral imperative and a national necessity” to support undocumented students who arrived in the United States as children.

Prompted by concern that President-elect Donald Trump may kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program started in 2012, college and university presidents said the initiative “should be upheld, continued and expanded.”

Nearly 1.4 million young people across the country have successfully registered with the program, which promises relief from deportation to those eligible. Its fate is up in the air given Trump’s oft-repeated campaign comments about immigration.

Spencer said Wednesday that since its founding by abolitionists more than 150 years ago, Bates “has maintained an unwavering commitment to recruiting students regardless of gender, race, religion, economic background or family circumstance.”

“By adding our voice to this important issue,” she said, “we continue to honor this mission and we stand ready to defend the rights of any and all of our students to pursue their educational goals.”

Trump has vowed to end the program and his choice for U.S. attorney general, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, once called DACA a “mass backdoor amnesty” that amounted to a choice by President Barack Obama “not to enforce plain law.”

The letter signed by Spencer, as well as her counterparts at Colby and Bowdoin colleges, said the students involved in the DACA program “are already part of our national community” and “represent what is best about America, and as scholars and leaders they are essential to the future.”

The Undocumented Student Program at the University of California at Berkeley describes the program as “a kind of administrative relief from deportation” for eligible immigrants who came to the United States as children without proper paperwork. The program provides those who meet its guidelines with protection from deportation and a work permit. It doesn’t offer a path to citizenship or any guarantee of permanent resident status.

The Immigrant Legal Resource Center said this month “those who receive or apply for DACA will not necessarily be targeted for deportation” and pointed out that it would be “extremely costly for the government to try to deport” everyone who has applied to the program.

Moreover, it said, “administrative programs like this have never been used for wholesale deportation in the past.”

“However, Trump is more unpredictable than past presidents, so we do not really know what to expect,” the immigration law center added.

Trump has vowed to end the program immediately. On his campaign website, he said that all immigration laws will be enforced.

“Anyone who enters the U.S. illegally is subject to deportation. That is what it means to have laws and to have a country,” Trump said, without mentioning any lenience toward those who were brought into the country as children without the necessary permission.

However, in a recent CBS television interview, Trump said, “What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers. After the border is secured and after everything gets normalized, we’re going to make a determination on the people that you’re talking about who are terrific people.”

Emily Manter, a Bates student involved in Maine Student Action, said Wednesday there are a number of students focused on the issue, but they could not be reached.

To be eligible for the DACA program, applicants must have arrived in the country before they turned 16, have lived continuously in the U.S. since 2007 and have no convictions for any felonies or serious misdemeanors, among other criteria. It was created by executive order by Obama and can be rescinded by Trump without seeking congressional approval.

More than 1.5 million people have registered with the program, according to its records, and nearly 1.4 million have been approved. About 90,000 applicants have been rejected.

The college presidents’ letter, signed by all 11 presidents of schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, said that since DACA’s creation four years ago, “we have seen the critical benefits of this program for our students, and the highly positive impacts on our institutions and communities.”

Beneficiaries of the program on campus, they said, “have been exemplary student scholars and student leaders, working across campus and in the community. With DACA, our students and alumni have been able to pursue opportunities in business, education, high tech and the nonprofit sector; they have gone to medical school, law school and graduate schools in numerous disciplines. They are actively contributing to their local communities and economies.”

The higher education leader also called “on our colleagues and other leaders across the business, civic, religious and nonprofit sectors to join with us in this urgent matter.”

It isn’t clear how many of Bates’ 2,000 students have a personal stake in DACA’s future.

On its admissions page, the college said it encourages “all students interested in the college, regardless of citizenship or immigration status” to apply, and mentioned that it welcomes them “to share relevant narratives unique to their circumstances” as part of the process. Admitted undocumented students receive all the financial aid they need, the college promised.

Spencer said that since the “progressive call” in 1855 to admit African-Americans and educate men and women together, “the founders of Bates affirmed that all human potential deserves to be developed.”

The letter signed by Spencer and other college presidents said, “The core mission of higher education is the advancement of knowledge, people and society. As educational leaders, we are committed to upholding free inquiry and education in our colleges and universities, and to providing the opportunity for all our students to pursue their learning and life goals.”

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