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Gubernatorial candidates differ on role of state in immigration

Gubernatorial candidates Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker during a forum hosted by El Mundo Boston, a Spanish language media outlet, and Northeastern University.
Gubernatorial candidates Martha Coakley and Charlie Baker during a forum hosted by El Mundo Boston, a Spanish language media outlet, and Northeastern University.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The five candidates for governor aired their differences on what role the state should take in crafting immigration policy during a forum on Latino issues Friday night at Northeastern University.

Early in the forum, which was presented by El Mundo Boston, a Spanish language media outlet, and Northeastern, the candidates were asked to weigh in on a plan in New York City to offer municipal identification cards that would be accepted at all city agencies as proof of identity, regardless of a person’s immigration status.

Republican Charlie Baker answered first, saying that rather than focus on “semi-solutions” at the state and municipal levels, Massachusetts officials should pressure Congress to finally hash out a comprehensive immigration reform plan.

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“There’s not a reality to this that’s in their face,” Baker said of officials in Washington.

His remarks drew a ready retort from Democrat Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, who quipped, “Charlie, maybe you should have run for Congress or Senate.”

But before Coakley could continue, a woman in the audience of more than 200 spectators leaped to her feet and shouted, “Why aren’t you talking about undocumented people?”

She quickly exited the auditorium with a group of supporters, leaving the candidates to continue discussing whether Massachusetts should play a role in addressing immigration issues at the state level, or its elected leaders should focus on pressing Washington.

Coakley, while not listing any specific proposals on immigration, said the state should be active in that realm. “States are laboratories of democracy,” she said.

But Baker stuck to his position, saying he strongly disagrees “with those who say that we can win this debate state by state.”

The three independents on the Nov. 4 ballot, Evan Falchuk, Scott Lively, and Jeff McCormick, also offered their thoughts. The candidates did not engage each other, but answered questions posed by the panelists and audience members at the forum, which was billed as “A Conversation with Our Next Governor.’’

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Like the other hopefuls, McCormick steered clear of specifics when asked about state solutions on immigration, but he appeared to leave the door open for Massachusetts officials to have a say in the matter.

“People cannot live their lives in fear,” he said to applause from the crowd.

Falchuk maintained that forming a coalition to pressure Washington is “not an answer” for undocumented residents of Massachusetts.

“We have to have the common sense to figure out how to handle this here in our state,” he said.

Lively drew groans when he said that people who “cheat their way’’ into the country should not be rewarded.

The candidates were also grilled on their commitment to diversity in hiring, if elected, their plans to close the student achievement gap and reduce higher education costs, and their proposals for addressing a shortage of affordable housing in the state.

On the housing front, Baker touted his plan to develop vacant state-owned land, Coakley pushed for regional economic development, Falchuk advocated for more multifamily housing instead of high-priced condos, McCormick said job growth would help, and Lively tied housing shortages to “a breakdown” in the traditional family structure.

Before the forum began, Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, received an award from El Mundo for his efforts on behalf of the Latino community.

“You should expect your governor to see you,” Patrick told the crowd in brief remarks when he accepted the award. “You are an important part of our Commonwealth.”

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Globe Correspondent Alyssa Edes contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.