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Is Google Translate Good Enough for Immigration Decisions?

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - SEPTEMBER 02:  The new Google logo is displayed at the Google headquarters on September 2, 2015 in Mountain View, California.  Google has made the most dramatic change to their logo since 1999 and have replaced their signature serif font with a new typeface called Product Sans.  (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
By Christopher Coble, Esq. on October 09, 2019

Google Translate is a great little tool. It can help you figure out what those weird words on restaurant menus mean while traveling abroad. Or explain those esoteric references in classic poetry. It's even been known to "listen" to someone speaking in one language and translate it into another language in real-time. But is it good enough to decide whether refugees can enter the country?

According to a report from ProPublica, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services gave officers step-by-step instructions for using Google Translate to sift through non-English social media posts of prospective refugees. Considering such social media use could be disqualifying for entry into the country, should immigration officials really be relying on a translation app to make such crucial decisions?

Efficient, Free, and Not Perfect

An internal USCIS manual obtained by ProPublica advises agents that "the most efficient approach to translate foreign language contents is to utilize one of the many free online language translation services provided by Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search engines." But as far as Google is concerned, "no automated translation is perfect nor is it intended to replace human translators."

"It's naive on the part of government officials to do that," Indiana University cognitive science professor Douglas Hofstadter told Pro Publica. "I find it deeply disheartening and stupid and shortsighted, personally." USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins, on the other hand, contended using machine translation tools to review social media activity "is a common sense measure to strengthen our vetting procedures."

Immigration Status Updates

New rules already allow the Department of Homeland Security to gather "social media handles, aliases, associated identifiable information, and search results" for all immigrants, even those who have already obtained a green card or completed the naturalization process. "Social media checks are designed to identify publicly available information in applicants' social media postings that may impact eligibility for their immigration filing," according to the DHS. "This could include information related to their claim for refugee status, information indicating potential fraud (such as identity fraud or document fraud), or information regarding criminal activity or national security concerns that would impact eligibility and admissibility."

Social media posts, made by an immigrant's Facebook friends, have already been used to deny entry to a potential Harvard student from Lebanon. While that case was resolved to allow the student on campus in time for fall classes, the potential for misuse is obvious. And according to the documents obtained by ProPublica, immigration officials aren't even that confident in translation tools:

USCIS has itself found that automated translation falls short in understanding social media posts. An undated draft internal review of a USCIS pilot social media vetting program concluded that "automatic foreign language translation was not sufficient."

The rules on refugee immigration were already complex, and the restrictions have only been getting tighter since President Donald Trump took office. For help applying for asylum or refugee status, contact an experienced immigration attorney.

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