"The recent increase in the number of unaccompanied alien children (UACs) apprehended at the border between Mexico and the United States has raised questions about the role that gang-related violence in Central America may play in determining whether such children are eligible for refugee status and asylum. Only aliens who are 'refugees,' as that term is defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), qualify for potential refugee status or asylum (two forms of discretionary relief that could enable UACs to enter or remain in the United States). The INA's definition, in turn, generally encompasses individuals outside their home country who are unable or unwilling to return to that country because of 'persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.' However, key terms within this definition--including persecution and particular social group--are not defined by statute or regulation. Instead, they have been construed by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest administrative tribunal for interpreting and applying immigration law, through a process of case-by-case adjudication, with the federal courts generally deferring to the BIA's interpretation insofar as it is based on a 'permissible construction' of the INA. These cases center upon eligibility for asylum, because denials of applications for refugee status cannot be appealed. Denials of asylum by immigration judges in the course of formal removal proceedings, in contrast, may be appealed to the BIA and the federal courts of appeals."
CRS Report for Congress, R43716