Photo by Kratka Photography.

This week, the Obama administration took another step toward restoring fairness and humaneness to the immigration system.  On Tuesday, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that she would grant a two-year reprieve to immigrants who were married to U.S. citizens but did not complete the permanent residency process because their American spouses died during the application process.

Under U.S. law, a foreign-born spouse of a U.S. citizen is eligible for permanent residency, but must complete a two-year conditional residency period first.  In cases where the U.S. citizen spouse died during the conditional residency status, the application for permanent residency was effectively revoked leaving the foreign spouses without legal immigration status and vulnerable to deportation. DHS’s decision also protects children of widowed immigrants from deportation for a two-year period.

While Napolitano’s announcement does not change the law, it does mean that DHS will freeze the prosecution and deportation of widows and widowers for a two-year period.  The change could affect approximately 200 immigrants.  Congress, however, must act to change the underlying law permanently.  Over the past few years there have been attempts to change the law, but they have failed.  This Congress, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) have introduced bills to protect immigrant widows and widowers.

Napolitano stated, “Smart immigration policy balances strong enforcement practices with common-sense, practical solutions to complicated issues.”

This policy announcement is the latest in a series of changes the Obama administration has made that signal a change in the “enforcement only” stance of the previous administration.  For example, earlier this year DHS announced that worksite enforcement and investigations will focus on unscrupulous and abusive employers who violate immigration laws rather than detaining large numbers of immigrant workers.

While these changes are certainly welcome, much more is needed to truly create a fair, practical, and human immigration system for the 21st century.  Years of enforcement-only policies have not only harmed countless American families but have also proved ineffectual.  Polls continue to show strong support for a comprehensive immigration reform that includes legalizing undocumented immigrants who can clear hurdles including paying back taxes and learning English.

The Obama administration has a historic opportunity to fix our broken immigration system and create a new system that restores the rule-of-law and makes sense for American families and the economy.  Acknowledging the needs of vulnerable widows and widowers is an important first step.