The candidates for governor — minus GOP nominee Charlie Baker and independent candidate Scott Lively — struck a welcoming note Tuesday night on immigration, saying they favor broader access to public colleges, adult English classes, and business opportunities for immigrants statewide.
But Democratic nominee Martha Coakley could not resist taking a jab at the empty seat — set up for Baker — beside her on stage.
“I think it’s telling who came tonight and who did not come,” she said.
Baker, Coakley’s main rival in a tight race, was listed on the program and organizers said they were expecting him.
“The campaign communicated to the organizers of tonight’s event some time ago that Charlie was unable to participate because of a prior commitment,” said Baker campaign spokesman Tim Buckley.
Instead, Baker showed up at a “Women for Charlie” event in West Roxbury with his wife, Lauren. He grabbed a beer and addressed the group of about 30 women. His appearance was not promoted ahead of time.
Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, one of the debate hosts, said Baker’s absence surprised them.
“He never told us he wasn’t coming for this event,” Millona said after the hour-long debate in an auditorium at Bunker Hill Community College.
With one of the main contenders absent, the debate offered few fireworks in the waning days of the election. Wednesday is the last day to register to vote in the Nov. 4 elections. Coakley shared the stage with independent candidates Evan Falchuk and Jeff McCormick.
The tenor of the debate differed from this past summer, when the state erupted in controversy over the unexpected arrival of now more than 1,000 child immigrants. Some complained about the cost of educating the children, who arrived as part of a surge of immigrants fleeing violence in Central America.
Instead, the debate focused on immigrants’ contributions to Massachusetts. The candidates praised immigrants for creating jobs and said they deserved the state’s protection and investment.
The three candidates also said they favored greater access to English classes for adults and college for students, whether they had arrived legally or not. Coakley and Falchuk specifically favored some form of bilingual education, which Massachusetts ended in 2002.
The candidates said they also favored drivers’ licenses for immigrants here illegally — Coakley, the attorney general, had earlier balked at granting such licenses — as well as checks on racial profiling and any government surveillance programs that might unfairly target specific groups, such as Muslims.
Each candidate called for better integration of the 1 million immigrants in Massachusetts, 15 percent of the state’s population.
“It’s cheap and easy to go after immigrants as political fodder,” said Falchuk, whose father emigrated from Venezuela, as he urged greater investments in adult English classes. “We’ve seen too much of that. It’s time to end it.”
McCormick expressed concern about Secure Communities, a federal program that taps into state and local police data to find illegal immigrants, saying the program was well intentioned but “misfired.” Advocates for immigrants said the program made immigrants afraid to call police for help.
“We have to get rid of this divisive language where it’s us versus them,” he said. “It has to be a ‘we’ going forward.”
Coakley said she favored making college more affordable for all, including immigrants now ineligible for financial aid because they aren’t citizens or are here illegally.
“We need to make sure it’s prosperous and fair for everybody,” she said, adding, “It’s good for every kid and every family. It’s frankly very good for Massachusetts.”
Coakley said she also favored raising the annual federal cap on H1B visas to attract more immigrant workers, such as those educated at elite colleges in the United States.
Massachusetts is home to large groups from China, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Central America, along with small but growing groups from nations in Africa. About half are naturalized US citizens, and the rest are a mix of immigrants here legally and illegally.
More than 80 percent speak a language other than English, according to the US census, and a significant minority, 43 percent, aren’t fluent in English, but they can wait as long as two years for a class.