US immigration using Google Translate to process social media posts of refugee applicants

US immigration officers are reportedly using Google Translate to help them process claims from refugees seeking asylum. 

An internal memo produced by US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) instructs them to use the free online program, alongside other free services provided by other search engines, to sift through the non-English social media posts of asylum seekers, according a report from the non-profit investigative journalism organisation, ProPublica. 

Google itself had admitted the tool is not fit for reliable translation. 

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“It’s naive on the part of the government officials to do that,” Douglas Hofstadter, a professor of cognitive science and comparative literature at Indiana University at Bloomington, told ProPublica.

"I find it deeply disheartening and stupid and shortsighted, personally.”

USCIS has claimed that it uses social media in order to strengthen their vetting process, despite the risk that bad translations could derail applications. 

In 2017 Facebook was forced to apologise for a bad translation of a post by a Palestinian man who wrote “good morning” only to have it translated to “hurt them”. 

USCIS has said that the “information collected from social media, by itself, will not be a basis to deny refugee resettlement.” 

In a statement to The Independent, a USCIS spokesperson said that it understood "the limitations of online translation tools. USCIS follows up with human translators as needed.”

In a separate statement to ProPublica, a spokesperson said that machine translation "is a common sense measure to strengthen our vetting procedures."

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News about the translation method came as the Trump administration has pushed for fewer refugee admissions, including a decision this week to slash the programme in half.

As a result, the US will only accept 18,000 refugees over the next 12 months, a sharp decline from the 110,000 that president Barack Obama allowed into the country in 2016, his final year in office. 

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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