US Government Using Google Translate To Screen Refugees

by Vins
Published: Updated:

The US government is relying on Google Translate to decide if refugees should enter the United States, according to a September 2019 report by ProPublica. An internal manual created by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services was obtained by the International Refugee Assistance Project. The manual includes step-by-step instructions for officers to examine social media pages of refugees, using Google Translate to help determine the contents of their pages and, ultimately, to inform the officials’ decisions of whether those persons should be allowed into the United States or not.

Although the manual acknowledges that online translation tools may not provide the best translations, its guidance raises questions about the extent to which immigration officials rely on professional translators to do proper background checks to vet refugees.

Google itself has cautioned against depending on Google Translate to complete difficult translations, noting that its service is not intended to replace an actual translator.

Automated translation services often fail to properly interpret satire, slang, or sarcasm. Content including videos and memes that involve cultural references cannot be properly converted by Google Translate, since interpretation requires literacy that considers different languages and complex contextual meanings across different generations.

It is not known how closely the manual’s instructions are followed by Citizenship and Immigration Services officers, but in the 2018 fiscal year, the agency reported that it conducted 11,740 social media screenings. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services mission includes protecting the United States, but using Google Translate as a primary basis for understanding other cultures online, and to determine the immigration status of refugees seeking to enter the US is deeply problematic.

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

ProPublica’s original report spurred coverage in a number of outlets, including Fox News, an NPR affiliate (KCRW), The Hill, and the BBC.

Source: Yeganeh Torbati, “Google Says Google Translate Can’t Replace Translators. Immigration Officials Have Used It to Vet Refugees,” ProPublica, September 26, 2019,

Student Researcher: Gustavo Meza (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluator: James J. Dean (Sonoma State University)