The Trump Administration is Relying on Google Translate to Vet Refugees

Immigration and citizenship officials sifting through refugees' social media posts are advised to use one of the free online translation tools
September 26, 2019, 9:04pm
Immigration and citizenship officials sifting through refugees' social media posts are advised to use one of the free online translation tools

When immigration and citizenship officials sift through the social media posts of refugees to determine if they can enter or stay in the country, they’re allowed to use online translation tools, according to an internal memo obtained by the International Refugee Assistance Project and shared with ProPublica.

Trouble is these tools are known for sometimes getting it wrong.

A manual used by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that processes asylum and refugee admissions, tells officers 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.” These online translation services aren’t always accurate, but USCIS officers are allowed to use them, ProPublica’s report found.


Under President Donald Trump, USCIS has increased its reliance on social media vetting for refugees. The Trump administration has also gone to great lengths to limit who — and how many people — can resettle in the United States. Refugee admissions have hit historic lows under Trump, and the administration reportedly wants to stop admitting refugees altogether.

USCIS spokesperson Jessica Collins told ProPublica that combing through refugee applicants’ social media pages “is a commonsense measure to strengthen our vetting procedures.”

Officers’ reliance on online, algorithm-based translation services creates another hurdle for refugees applying to resettle in the U.S., since these translations can lead to misinterpretations of innocuous posts, ProPublica found. In one instance, Facebook mistakenly translated a post by a Palestinian man, which said “good morning,” as “hurt them.” (That man wasn’t a refugee, but he was arrested by Israeli police over the post before Facebook apologized for the mistranslation.)

Social media posts have also been used to determine whether someone can enter the country at all, even if they aren’t planning on resettling as a refugee.

In August, Customs and Border Protection officers detained an incoming Harvard freshman at Boston Logan International Airport for several hours, during which they searched his phone. The student, a 17-year-old Palestinian citizen living in Lebanon, was reportedly questioned over posts people he knew had made on social media. Customs deemed him inadmissible and forced him to fly back to Lebanon, even though the posts weren’t his own. He was allowed to enter the U.S. a few weeks later after Harvard and Amideast, the organization that sponsored him, intervened.

Cover: The Google Translate app is seen on an Android portable device on February 5, 2018. (Photo by Jaap Arriens / Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)