Maria Martinez of Detroit holds onto an American flag Thursday during a Michigan United news conference in Detroit calling for protection of immigrants. (Tanya Moutzalias/Associted Press)

AN EARLY test of the Trump administration’s capacity for malice, or for constructive compassion, is its stance on “dreamers” — undocumented young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and who were granted a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation by President Barack Obama. On that score, in his earliest days in office, Mr. Trump is tilting, maybe, toward compassion.

Having spent most of the presidential campaign vowing to revoke what he called an unconstitutional “amnesty” (which it isn’t, since dreamers have been granted what amounts to a stay, not legal status), Mr. Trump switched gears after the election, saying he would “work something out” that would “make people happy and proud.” Now his spokesman, Sean Spicer, says the new president’s priority for deportation is “people who have done harm to our country,” not dreamers, whom Mr. Trump would approach “in a very humane way.” In other words, the focus will be on undocumented criminals, the same sub-group of illegal immigrants targeted by Mr. Obama’s deportation policy.

Deporting 750,000 dreamers who registered with the government and received Social Security numbers and two-year work permits would not just be cruel; it would be economically self-defeating and politically foolish. After all, this is a population that grew up and attended school in this country; they are as promising, hopeful and culturally American as their neighbors.

It is encouraging that the administration is edging toward acknowledging this. Ending talk of deportation is a good start. But that alone will not bring a sense of security to dreamers and an estimated 1 million others eligible for the same status — those who arrived in the United States by 2007 and before their 16th birthday and are now no older than 35. Mr. Trump’s promise to “work something out” would have to include renewing their two-year work permits and registering others who meet the criteria. Removing those protections, or allowing them to lapse, would force some 1.7 million people back into limbo, with no confidence they could continue to work, study or travel.

The best path forward remains an overhaul of the immigration system that would provide long-term protections not only for dreamers but also for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, the majority of whom have been in this country for more than 15 years. Without offering details, Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s White House chief of staff, allowed that he would also welcome what he called “a long-term solution” worked out with Congress.

That sounds like something very different from threats of mass deportation, with which Mr. Trump whipped up his campaign rallies. It holds out a glimmer of hope that the new president’s election-year hyperbole on immigration, at least as it pertained to dreamers, may yield to something more resembling pragmatism.