Are they “illegal aliens” or “undocumented noncitizens”?Are representatives of certain anti-immigrant groups credible media sources or racist hate mongers not to be quoted by credible print and electronic media?What is the role of responsible journalism in the public debate about our badly broken immigration system?

These are some of the questions that New York Times National Immigration Correspondent Julia Preston, Cleveland Plain Dealer Reporter Bob Smith, and I debated Tuesday night at a public forum sponsored by the Cleveland Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalism.The forum took place at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio and was moderated by Veronica Dahlberg, Executive Director of the Hispanas Organizadas de Lake y Ashtabula (HOLA).

To be sure, the discussion was spirited.Julia took the position that as a force in the national immigration debate certain anti-immigrant restrictionist groups and their surrogates are part of the story and, therefore, their positions merit attention.I, on the other hand, argued that the media has a duty to call out such groups—one of which has been designated a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center—for their nefarious connections to white supremacists.In my opinion, such ties undercut their credibility.Julia’s counter point was that responsible journalists must present all facets of the debate to the public.

We also disagreed on the use of the phrase “illegal alien” as a descriptive in news stories.Julia argued that the term is appropriate since it describes a class of noncitizens whose unlawful immigration status subjects them to the harsh consequences of the current immigration system, which includes imprisonment and removal from theU.S.I counteredby pointing out that the phrase is simply wrong—presence in the U.S. without proper immigration status is not, in the vast majority of cases, a crime—and use of the phrase “illegal alien” is the product of a public debate which as been hijacked by anti-immigrant extremists bent on dehumanizing foreign nationals.

Interestingly, Julia’s front page story about the layoff of 1,800 undocumented workers at the American Apparel clothing company had just been posted on the New York Times’ website and she was able to give the audience a synopsis. As has been widely reported, 1,800 workers at the company face imminent firing as the result of an “immigration crackdown” by ICE.Ironically, as the Times points out in today’s editorial Broken in U.S.A., “Unlike companies that routinely seek out illegal immigrants (the better to exploit them), American Apparel pays $10 to $12 an hour, well above the minimum wage and industry standards, plus health benefits.It hires locally, cultivates a trained work force, and is seen as a valued corporate citizen in Los Angeles.” Times calls the enforcement action “ludicrous”.

The panel discussion lasted for more than 2 hours and included a wide range of questions from a very engaged audience. Julia, Bob, Veronica, and I then enjoyed a wonderful dinner at the Anatolia Cafe, a fabulous local Turkish restaurant.

Of course, I chose the culinary venue hoping that Julia would report that there is more to Cleveland cuisine than Kielbasa and Pirogue.