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We are prisoners of our language. The words we use to describe things guide the way we think about them. Even when those "things" are human beings.

People who live in the United States are now debating what words we should use to refer to human beings who are residing in this country in violation of one or another section of the voluminous laws that govern immigration, citizenship and travel across our borders.

The term generally favored by serious journalists — taking their cue, as always, from the Associated Press Stylebook — is "illegal immigrant." Respectable news organizations, though, generally will not boil it down so much as to refer to a person as an "illegal." And not only because we are bothered by the sloppiness of turning an adjective into a noun.

The former can be defended as a legally accurate term. The latter borders on a slur, not only by defining a whole, complicated human being by one aspect of his or her life, but by doing so with a blunt word that can never be thought of as anything but derogatory.

Recently, though, many religious organizations and groups serving the poor and downtrodden are objecting to such terms as "illegal immigrant" or "illegal alien." They view the expressions as dehumanizing, demeaning and, given that the over arching controversy has taken on tones that smack of ethnic bigotry, racial profiling and linguistic jingoism, nigh onto hate speech.

The expressions are so distasteful to some that the term "illegal immigrant" has been formally banned from the utterings and writings of the First United Methodist Church and quietly dropped from just about anything said in the name of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Language evolves. Trends change. What was once common and polite becomes dated and embarrassing.

One thing should remain constant. Any illegal immigrant, undocumented worker, unauthorized alien, is, and will forever remain, a person. And, under the really important words of the U.S. Constitution, the protections of law and due process belong to all persons, not just citizens. In fact, the word "citizen" in the Constitution is basically confined to the bits about qualifications for public office. The word doesn't make it past Article IV of the original document and cannot be found at all in the Bill of Rights.

That means that people who stand accused of violating our laws, including immigration laws, are never anything less than persons, who must be afforded the full rights that accompany not citizenship, but humanity.

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