Adriano Espaillat, the state assemblyman from Washington Heights, was touring the storm-ravaged Dominican Republic when he got a telephone call from Gov. Spitzer.
It was late Tuesday and the governor told him that he was abandoning his plan to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants in New York State.
After two months of relentless pounding from Senate Republicans and television pundits like Lou Dobbs, and after a firestorm of public opposition against his plan, Spitzer was conceding defeat.
"This is tragic," Espaillat said yesterday. "The undertone of bigotry on this issue has prevailed. The Democratic Party in this state just caved and shifted to the right."
Espaillat voiced what many Latino leaders now fear: Illegal immigration is rapidly becoming the boogey man of the upcoming presidential race.
Republican leaders, fearing a complete rout of their party in next year's national election, are determined to ride public anger over undocumented immigrants in the same way they rode anger over gay marriage in the 2004 race.
Look at all those illegal Salvadoran gardeners and Mexican bus boys and Jamaican nannies and Haitian sugar cane cutters - all those weapons of mass destruction aimed at America.
Terrorists abroad. Alien invasion within. Danger everywhere.
Such is the tone of many of the e-mails and letters I receive whenever I write about immigration. Others are so filled with pure venom toward Hispanics they make Dobbs, the Father Coughlin of our time, sound positively warm and cuddly.
Early this week, U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Republican presidential candidate from Colorado, released a campaign commercial in Iowa.
It shows a hooded terrorist with a bomb in a shopping mall, while talking about "20 million aliens who have come here to take our jobs" and "Islamic terrorists freely roaming on U.S. soil."
Like Bush, who falsely linked Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda, Tancredo and the extreme wing of the anti-immigrant movement are falsely linking foreign terrorists to immigrants who come here desperate to find work.
While governors and mayors across America are being forced to deal with the failure of Congress to approve comprehensive immigration reform, Tancredo and the haters whip up the worst fears imaginable.
Tancredo's presidential campaign may not be getting much support, but his views on immigration are getting far more traction.
Last week, House Republicans pushed through a last-minute provision that forbids the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from pursuing discrimination cases against companies that force their workers to speak only English.
When more than 30 centrist Democrats joined with the Republicans to pass the bill, members of the Hispanic Caucus were furious; they threatened to withhold their votes on other important bills in protest.
"We've had to fight and argue every day with some of our own Democrats to stop them from backing anti-immigrant measures," said U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez, (D-N.Y.).
The solution to the immigration problem is comprehensive reform from Washington. But with half the Democrats cowed by the fear-mongering of the extreme right, the most voiceless and powerless people in America - undocumented workers - are about to become this year's Willie Horton.
Juan Gonzalez is a Daily News columnist.
© 2007 Daily News, LP