Story at a glance

  • The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is using machine translation to help determine whether people with family in the U.S. can resettle as refugees.
  • Experts say Google Translate and other machine translation tools are flawed, sometimes mis-translating words or phrases.
  • Translation programs also often misunderstand nuance and humor.
  • Facebook had to apologize when a Palestinian man’s “good morning” was translated as “hurt them.”

An internal manual acquired by the International Refugee Assistance Project and shared with ProPublica shows that the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is using Google Translate to vet refugee applications.

Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has rolled back the number of refugees who are resettled. In 2016, the Obama administration accepted 110,000 resettled refugees, but only 18,000 will be allowed to resettle in the next 12 months, the Independent reports. To decide who can enter — and who cannot — the current administration has increased its tracking of social media accounts. For many applicants, their social media accounts are not in English.

“It’s naive on the part of government officials to do that,” Douglas Hofstadter, a professor who has studied language and analogies, told ProPublica. “I find it deeply disheartening and stupid and shortsighted, personally.”

The internal manual for vetting non-English social media accounts was specific to follow-to-join cases, for people whose spouses or parents have already been accepted to the United States. And by using Google Translate, errors were already well-documented. Google knows that its machine translation tool isn’t a replacement for human translators, and schools discourage language students from relying on the tool because it misses nuance, idioms and jokes.

“It defies logic that we would use unreliable tools to decide whether refugees can reunite with their families,” Betsy Fisher, strategy director at IRAP, told ProPublica. “We wouldn’t use Google Translate for our homework, but we are using it to keep refugee families separated.”

Examples of errors given by ProPublica and The Independent include Facebook’s mistranslation of a Palestinian man’s post that said “Good morning,” to “hurt them,” and of a Persian-language satirical tweet that said “Whose child lives in America?” that was translated to “When will you taste America?” by Google and “Who is the American?” by Microsoft’s Bing translator.

Still, when asked by The Independent, a spokesperson for the USCIS said that machine translation “is a common sense measure to strengthen our vetting procedures."

Published on Nov 04, 2019