It should be permanently suspended. It is one of the most unfeeling policies imaginable

The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday it is temporarily freezing a policy of deporting widows and widowers of U.S. citizens, a sign of the Obama administration’s interest in new approaches to immigration. Only a few hundred people were at risk of deportation under the policy, but critics viewed it as one of the most painful consequences of President George W. Bush’s immigration crackdown.

Under the current interpretation of federal law, some immigrants whose American spouses had died faced possible deportation because their legal status was in limbo. The rule applied to immigrants who had been married for less than two years or whose green-card process hadn’t been completed when their spouses died. The clause, known as the “widow penalty,” had resulted in a spate of lawsuits.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that her agency was freezing any action against such widows and widowers for two years. “Smart immigration policy balances strong enforcement practices with common-sense, practical solutions to complicated issues,” Ms. Napolitano said.

A Department of Homeland Security statement said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that oversees immigrant petitions, would give favorable consideration to requests for reinstatement of cases that previously had been revoked under the law.

Ms. Napolitano’s directive offers relief, if only temporary, to some 200 widows and widowers. However, it suggests the Obama administration could be testing a softer approach to other contentious aspects of immigration policy. “It’s a good sign, and it hedges Obama’s bets: If comprehensive [immigration] reform advances, this will help pave the way. If not, at least he can say he tried,” said Dan Kowalski, an Austin, Texas, immigration attorney and editor of Bender’s Immigration Bulletin.

There have been other recent signals that broader change to immigration enforcement might be afoot. In recent months, there has been a drop in work-site raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which conducted several operations to round up illegal immigrants during the Bush administration.

Ms. Napolitano ordered a review after a February raid — the first mass arrest of immigrants since President Barack Obama took office — on an engine factory in Washington state. She has since said ICE agents will focus on employers rather than workers.

In Tuesday’s announcement, DHS described Ms. Napolitano’s directive as a “short-term arrangement,” and noted that immigration law would need to be amended for a permanent new policy to take effect.

Immigrant advocates reacted with cautious optimism. “It’s an enormous watershed moment…but it’s just a Band-Aid for two years,” said Brent Renison, an immigration attorney who has been fighting widow cases for several years.

One of Mr. Renison’s clients caught in this legal bind is Diana Engstrom, a native of Kosovo, whose husband, Todd Engstrom, was a U.S. Army contractor killed in Iraq in 2004. She has been fighting in court for years for the right to remain in the U.S. legally. A bill introduced on her behalf by Mr. Obama, then a U.S. senator, with fellow Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin in 2005, was never acted upon. Congress has yet to act on several bills that seek to clarify the immigration status of widows and widowers.

In May, Mr. Renison won a class-action lawsuit in federal district court in Los Angeles against the DHS. Other courts have also ruled against the federal government, but the government continued to enforce the law.