New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has backed down from a plan to make regular driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants, after being targeted by a national hate campaign in the right-wing media.

This is one more manifestation of a growing and increasingly racist anti-immigrant campaign and of the failure of some liberal and centrist leaders to stand up to it.

The hate campaign is being coordinated by a small group of organizations that share funders, board members and misinformation. The bigoted message is amplified by the loudmouths of cable TV, right-wing talk radio, the press and the blogosphere.

Although studies show that immigrants, even those without papers, have lower crime and disease rates than comparable sectors of the native-born population, the reactionary agitators try to frighten the public with stories of nonexistent waves of crime and exotic diseases.

Although the immense majority of immigrants come only to work or to join their families, fantastic stories are spun of Mexican takeover plots.

In a number of communities, right-wing Republican political machines have felt their hold on power threatened by demographic changes. So they resort to the tactic of passing local anti-immigrant measures to drive out Latinos and other minorities.

The Republican Party, facing catastrophe in the 2008 elections, seems to have decided that immigrant-bashing will be its key tactic. Almost all the Republican presidential candidates have now jumped on the anti-immigrant bandwagon.

The Bush administration is contributing mightily to the anti-immigrant rampage by jacking up repressive enforcement actions and then justifying them by repeating the lies about an immigrant crime and terrorism “menace.” Routine arrests of completely peaceful undocumented workers are hyped into major blows against the terrorist threat.

Bush and his corporate backers don’t care if this propaganda leads to vigilante violence. Their aim is to maintain a supply of low-paid workers without rights. These could be guest workers or terrorized undocumented workers. The repressive tactics will not get rid of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, but only make them even more vulnerable to exploitation. This is why the demand of the immigrant rights movement and organized labor has been for legalization of the undocumented.

I recently received two surveys from the Democratic Party asking my views on different issues. Nowhere in either survey is the issue of immigration reform even mentioned. There is a tendency among some Democrats to run away from the immigration reform issue as supposedly favoring the Republicans.

Agreed, the GOP is using the immigrant-bashing as a red herring to distract the attention of voters from the crimes of the Bush administration, from Iraq to the home mortgage crisis and Hurricane Katrina. No doubt this is why many Democrats want to leave immigration reform legislation until 2009, or even 2013. Some are even jumping on board anti-immigrant legislation, like the harshly repressive SAVE Act, HR 4088. The main sponsor, Rep. Heath Shuler (N.C.) is a Democrat, as are 43 of its 95 co-sponsors. They are doing the Republicans’ work for them.

In Germany, the Nazis used anti-Semitism for the exact same red herring purpose. By blaming everything on the Jews, they aimed to cover up the crimes of capitalism and block a transition to socialism. It was the clear duty of all progressive people then to denounce Hitler’s anti-Semitism at the top of their lungs and do what they could to stop it, and not say, “Wait until after the elections,” or “Jews are a Nazi issue, let’s stay clear of that.” Some did speak out and some didn’t, with the results we know.

Tactical maneuvering has to take place in the overall context of principled struggle. On immigrant rights, too many are taking a stance of all maneuvering, no struggle. This abandons the field to the anti-immigrant racists, leaves immigrant workers and their families in the lurch and weakens the progressive movement overall, by uncoupling from the energy shown in the massive immigrant rights marches of 2006 and 2007 — energy which helped Democrats to win in 2006.

Immigrants and their allies are fighting desperately, through demonstrations, boycotts and litigation. But legislation is also needed and, above all, responsible political leaders need to denounce the campaign of lies and hate.

The fear of losing a few votes cannot be a pretext for standing aloof from this vital struggle and dropping the immigrant rights issue from the legislative agenda.

Emile Schepers is an immigrant rights activist.