She had spent her final week praying for one outcome while preparing for another.

With five days left before she was supposed to leave the United States, Paula Godoy explained to her three children what it meant to be deported. With three days left, she packed her clothes and rosary beads into a makeshift suitcase. With two days left, she arranged to live in Guatemala with the only relative still there, a distant uncle whom she would identify at the airport by his orange Hawaiian shirt.

And on the last day, Godoy awoke next to her boyfriend in their Richmond apartment and confessed she had all but given up hope.

“There’s no time,” she told him. “We need a miracle now.”

Godoy had thought she might be given a last-minute reprieve based on the government’s new deportation guidelines, which were put into place last month. Faced with 11 million illegal immigrants and limited funds with which to remove them, the Obama administration announced it would focus only on deporting the worst of the worst while dismissing cases against people such as Godoy, who have clean records and long histories in the United States.

The government said it plans to reconsider the status of 300,000 illegal residents under the new guidelines, including many who already received deportation orders. But sometimes in Washington, a solution isn’t necessarily a fix. Even with the guidelines in place, there is no way for illegal immigrants to apply for review, and the government has yet to announce which cases will be reevaluated, when, and by whom. The new guidelines are not a law or a bill or even a policy; they are a suggestion that will be interpreted day by day, case by case.

One of those cases was Godoy’s. “I just need an answer,” she said.

A life in Richmond? Or a morning flight out of Dulles, already confirmed by deportation officials?

Twenty-four hours left to determine her fate.

She picked up her cellphone at 7:45 a.m. and called her attorney in Manassas. He spoke little Spanish and she spoke little English, but he was her only chance left. She had gone through four lawyers and $10,000 since November 2009, when a police officer pulled her over for driving with a suspended license and discovered she had entered the country twice without documentation. While the government began to push for her removal, Godoy e-mailed congressmen and took a bus to New York to meet a self-proclaimed immigration specialist who charged her $1,500 and then stopped returning her calls.

Finally, late last month, a friend recommended that Godoy visit Ricky Malik, a young lawyer in Manassas. He told Godoy about the just-released guidelines and helped her apply for a stay of removal for two more years in the United States. He stapled a copy of the guidelines to her request. Godoy had been calling him for updates five or six times every day since.

This time, her call went directly to voice mail, and with 23 hours left Godoy decided to leave another message.

“Señor, por favor,” she said. Please.

It was the first day of school for her two sons, so Godoy tried to lose herself in the details of the life she still had. She filled up her boyfriend’s car with gas, even though the boyfriend and the car would both be staying behind. She breast-fed her 4-week-old baby, Marilyn Nicole, even though the baby was too young to have received a birth certificate or a passport and would stay in the United States to be cared for by her father.

She drove her two sons, ages 10 and 6, across south Richmond to their elementary school, even though they would need to transfer later in the week if they moved in with relatives. The boys jumped over puddles in the parking lot and followed Godoy into the building. She walked Diego, 10, to his fifth-grade classroom.

“The first day makes me nervous,” he said.

“I know,” she told him. “Be brave.”

The boys wanted to move with Godoy to Guatemala, but she had decided that they would stay in the United States with their grandmother. Godoy finally had built the life she wanted for her family since she crossed the border in 2000, paying a smuggler $6,000 and spending two months traveling on buses and foot trails before finally entering the United States through Texas. Her siblings and cousins lived nearby in Richmond. Despite the sluggish economy, she still managed to clean enough houses to pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment. Her kids rode around the neighborhood on bikes and came home to play their Nintendo Wii. Two of them were U.S. citizens. Their lives were here.

Paula walked out of the elementary school and returned home. She e-mailed another congressman, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), whom she had seen talking about the new immigration guidelines on TV.

“I am desperate and out of time,” she wrote in Spanish. “I don’t know if my life will be here or there.”

She looked up at the kitchen clock. Almost 10 a.m.

“Dios mio,” she said.

Twenty-one hours to go.

She reached for her phone and redialed the lawyer.

A determined advocate

The phone rang in Ricky Malik’s office, and he let his secretary answer for him. He was already on the other line with an immigration judge in Texas, trying to negotiate another client’s release; while also sifting through the phone-book-size file of a client recently detained in Virginia; while periodically looking out into a lobby filled with three families seeking emergency appointments. His secretary knocked on the door.

“Paula Godoy has been calling,” the secretary said.

“I know,” he said. “Tell her I’m doing everything I can.”

Malik had about 300 active immigration cases on file, and his small office in a Manassas business park had developed a reputation as the place of last resort. “Everyone who comes in here is about to have their lives blown up,” he said. Almost all of his clients were facing deportation, most would eventually be removed, and many would see their futures determined partly by timing and luck.

So far, Malik said, Godoy’s luck had been horrible.

In theory, he considered her case a shoo-in for dismissal under the new guidelines. Here was the breast-feeding mother of a 4-week-old — a woman who had lived in Richmond for a decade, paid her taxes and raised two American citizens. “If her deportation date was a month later, there would be plenty of time to make some calls and do this right,” Malik said. But instead her departure was in 19 hours, and Malik had no choice but to make his final plea now, on the first day after a holiday weekend, when Virginia’s office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was more besieged than ever.

Malik already had called the office once earlier in the morning for an update on Godoy’s case. “How many calls mean you’re just checking in and how many mean you’re harassing?” he wondered. It had been two hours since his last call. He looked up the number for the officer assigned to Godoy’s case and called again.

“Hi, this is Ricky Malik, the lawyer for Ms. Paula Godoy. I’m not sure if you remember . . . Oh, you do? Okay. Well, I apologize, but this is quite the desperate situation here. Have you had a chance to review the file?”

The ICE officer placed Malik on hold, and the lawyer stood up from his desk and looked out into his lobby. Two more emergencies had just arrived.

“I understand,” Malik said now into phone. “Will you let me know as soon as you know something? I’m sure you guys are overloaded there — the long weekend and all that. I’m going to hope and pray for the best.”

During a decade as a lawyer, Malik had cultivated a phone demeanor that he described as “forcibly appealing.” He was persistent enough to win attention for his clients’ cases, but friendly enough that ICE continued to answer his calls. He had come to the country as an outsider himself, by way of India and then England, and now he had a small business, a house in Centreville, a wife and a 5-month-old son. He had decided to specialize in immigration law because he wanted to help people like himself — foreigners who hoped to acquire work visas and build solid foundations in the United States.

But his job had become less about facilitating dreams than preventing what he had come to think of as catastrophes. Fewer businesses were willing to hire skilled immigrant workers in a down economy, and President Obama had deported a record number of people during his time in office. Now many of the clients who came through Malik’s door wore tracking devices on their ankles. Some could barely afford to pay him. He had never advertised his business, but he had a word-of-mouth reputation as an honest lawyer, “un abogado sincero.” He charged low rates, laughed when under duress, worked long hours and told his clients the truth — even if it required a translator. His business continued to grow.

The new immigration guidelines had created some hope and a lot of confusion among his clients. Some thought Obama had passed a law granting widespread amnesty; others thought 300,000 lucky immigrants could earn their citizenship. Malik explained that neither was true. At best, he said, the guidelines afforded some illegal residents a little more time.

Godoy had 15 hours. Malik closed his office door and picked up the phone.

“Hi, this is Ricky Malik,” he said again. “We spoke before. I’m not sure if you remember.”

System overload

So many people were trying to reach the ICE office in Northern Virginia that most callers were immediately redirected to the Web site or asked to leave a message. The building’s parking lot was filled to capacity, and so was its lobby. While politicians continued to fight over the country’s growing immigration problems, here a group of anonymous government employees worked quietly to solve them. It was an endless, thankless, stressful job — and more so now than ever.

In a country with 11 million illegal immigrants, the government can only afford to deport 400,000 people per year. Immigration courts had record backlogs; some judges were booked solid into 2014. Democrats and Republicans were divided over how to reform immigration, and Congress was gridlocked. States such as Arizona have attempted to pass their own laws, only to be sued by the federal government.

The new guidelines had empowered ICE employees to use “prosecutorial discretion” and offer their own case-by-case solutions. But each of their decisions — each case — required a series of calculations that echoed across the immigration debate.

Did granting an illegal immigrant more time in the United States solve a problem or prolong it? Would the United States benefit from focusing exclusively on deporting serious criminals? Or did dismissing hundreds of thousands of immigration violations qualify as ignoring the law?

Dismiss or pursue?

An enforcement officer looked over Paula Godoy’s file in the late afternoon. It was more than 25 pages. The law supported her deportation: She had entered and reentered the country illegally, and her case already had cost the government time and money. She had been detained briefly in two crowded facilities and then outfitted with a tracking device on her ankle.

But the new guidelines supported leniency: Godoy’s attorney had attached more than a dozen documents to her application to depict her as a person with strong ties to the United States. Here was a photocopy of her daughter’s U.S. proof of birth; her father’s permanent-resident card; her brother’s driver’s license; her 2010 tax statement. Here, near the back of the packet, was a grainy, black-and-white photo from early August that showed Godoy in a hospital bed, too tired to smile, with her new daughter wrapped in a receiving blanket.

The enforcement officer confirmed the details in the file and then consulted with his supervisor. It was after 5 p.m. Fourteen hours left. Time to decide. He picked up his phone to make the call.

Godoy was cleaning a house in suburban Richmond when her phone rang. She stepped out to the curb and answered. It was an officer from ICE, and he said they had reached a decision.

“Si?” she said. Yes?

Reprieve is brief

Three days later, after the government had decided to grant her a stay of removal, Godoy left her apartment in Richmond for an appointment with Malik. She had been given six more months in the United States thanks to the new guidelines, and at first she had been overcome by relief. She had unpacked her makeshift suitcase and taken a day off work to spend with her boyfriend. Cousins had brought over pupusas. ICE had said it would remove the tracking device on her ankle.

But, within a few days, her elation had given way to confusion and then a familiar dread. She wanted to ask Malik what the decision meant for future. She sat down in his office and thanked him for his work.

“It’s good but not all good,” he told her.

He explained that nothing about the decision or the new guidelines had granted her legal status; that she would possibly need to file for another stay of removal soon; that she should set aside some money to buy her next deportation plane ticket. He explained that her solution was only temporary. It wasn’t a fix.

“Technically,” Malik said, “you now have less than six months.”

And already her countdown had started again.