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Every morning, they don their black robes, take their seats and listen to the pleas of a long line of immigrants desperate to stay in America. The pace is fast, the pressure intense, the stories sometimes haunting. The work, these judges say, is exhausting:

"The volume is constant and unrelenting.' ... 'There is not enough time to think.' ... 'Nobody gives a damn about us!' ... 'I know I couldn't do this job if I were not on medication for depression or did not have access to competent psychological care myself.' ... 'I cannot take this place anymore. What a dismal job this is!'"

These are the voices of immigration judges who determine the fate of tens of thousands of people every year - illegal border crossers, visa violators, refugees who flee China, El Salvador, Iran and other countries, each making a case to remain here.

These judges are at the heart of a bloated immigration court system saddled by explosive growth, a troubled reputation and a record backlog, according to one estimate, of nearly 268,000 cases. The problems are drawing increased scrutiny of a little-seen world where justice can seem arbitrary, lives can remain in limbo for years - and blame seems to be in abundance.

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