When it comes to the politics of immigration control, Arizona is ground zero. The state has passed ballot initiatives affirming English as the official language and requiring proof of legal residency for voting. In 2008, Arizonans soundly defeated a misleadingly titled referendum question—the “Stop Illegal Hiring Act”—that would have made it easier for employers to evade the consequences of employing illegal immigrants.

Arizona’s legislature has enacted a number of immigration-restriction measures, including a bill that expanded workplace citizenship-verification systems and the infamous SB 1070, which set off a wave of copycat legislation across the country stepping up state and local police involvement in immigration enforcement.

Jan Brewer, the state’s governor, turned her troubled reelection bid around by embracing that controversial law in the face of boycotts by business and immigrant groups. The journalist Thomas Edsall cites John McCain’s 180 degree turn on the issue during his own reelection battle as evidence of “the ascendance of the anti-immigration forces” turning the GOP into “the White Party.” “Arizona,” Edsall writes in The Politics of Austerity, “is the epicenter of the battle over immigration.”

So it is significant that the architect of Arizona’s tough illegal-immigration policies, former state Senate President Russell Pearce, was successfully recalled in November. Pearce was replaced by a fellow Republican who is somewhat to his left on immigration. The conventional wisdom became that Arizonans might be changing their tune on a deeply polarizing political issue. “This is a game-changer for Arizona, politically speaking,” Tucson’s Democratic Congressman Raúl Grijalva told the New York Times. “[Pearce has] been the author of so much of what’s been going on in this state. He’s used race and division to get elected, and now he’s gone.”

But the reality is more complicated than the narratives offered by either the mainstream media or advocates of stricter immigration controls. The New York Times and Pearce-style conservatives may be far apart on immigration policy, but they agree that the Republican Party has moved in a decisively restrictionist direction at the urging of its grassroots supporters.

Pearce’s downfall doesn’t necessarily disprove the point. The senator was ensnared in a scandal that found a bipartisan group of Arizona legislators accepting favors from the organizers of the Fiesta Bowl. His opponent, Jerry Lewis, has described SB 1070 as a “good start” and tried to present his immigration-related differences with Pearce as having more to do with style than substance. Pearce’s bid to stay in office was made even more complicated after his supporters were accused of aiding a third candidate in the recall, Olivia Cortest, in a ham-fisted effort to siphon votes from Lewis. (Pearce denies any knowledge of such a plot.) The charges dominated the first month of the recall campaign.

To say Pearce’s loss represents a repudiation of his views on immigration is an oversimplification. But it is equally simplistic to suggest that the country—or even just conservative Republicans—has marched steadily in a restrictionist direction. The issue’s actual path has been one step forward followed by two steps back for restrictionists.

Sixteen years before Brewer, California Gov. Pete Wilson saved his political career by moving to the right on immigration. In 1994, same year Wilson was reelected, Golden State voters approved Proposition 187—which barred illegal immigrants from receiving most taxpayer funds—by a landslide. But just two years later, a Republican Congress rejected legislation that would have beefed up enforcement and slowed down immigration. Restrictionists were never again that close to passing far-reaching legislation at the federal level, even after the 9/11 terrorist attacks heightened concern about border security.

California Republicans, for their part, vacillated between blaming Wilson’s hardline stance for their failure to connect with Hispanic voters and trying to appeal to those who cast their ballots for Prop 187. The party’s last two gubernatorial nominees—actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was elected twice, and businesswoman Meg Whitman, who lost in 2010—were all over the place on immigration. In some cases, they seemed to take different positions based on whether their audience spoke English or Spanish.

Even the record in Arizona has been mixed. While restrictionists had won most battles before the Pearce recall, they failed to dislodge pro-amnesty Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe in Republican primaries in 2004. After Kolbe retired two years later, a restrictionist Republican won the primary but lost the general election to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords. Restrictionists were unable to find a viable candidate to run against Flake for an open Senate seat this year. And though he had to change his line on immigration, McCain easily beat hardliner J.D. Hayworth in the 2010 GOP senatorial primary.

A look at the 2012 Republican presidential field is instructive. All the major candidates say they oppose amnesty and wish to curb illegal immigration. Before dropping out of the race, Herman Cain even joked that he would secure the border with an electrified fence. When Rick Perry defended in-state tuition for illegal immigrants in Texas during a debate, his poll numbers tanked. Perry subsequently attacked Mitt Romney for allowing illegal immigrants to mow his lawn.

Yet Newt Gingrich took a position that was closer to “comprehensive immigration reform”—adjusting the legal status of illegal aliens in exchange for various enforcement measures—than to the attrition-through-enforcement policy favored by restrictionists. The “comprehensive” approach includes a guest-worker program, an expansion of H-1B visas, and legalization of certain illegal immigrants who pay a $5,000 fine. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that millions could benefit.

Many of Gingrich’s opponents, from Romney to Michele Bachmann, denounced him for proposing what is tantamount to amnesty, but this produced little immediate movement in his poll numbers. Even many conservatives sympathetic to the restrictionist position don’t want to remove people who fit the former speaker’s criteria: “you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church.”

Gingrich coupled his leniency with some tougher medicine: “around-the clock drone flights” to sniff out illegals and “multi-layer, strategic fencing in urban areas.” He would let corporations run his guest-worker program and local review boards administer his amnesty. That most of these interesting wrinkles are unworkable did not dampen Republican enthusiasm for his candidacy. Gingrich had never been very helpful to restrictionists while he was speaker of the House, though he did try to benefit politically from voter concerns about illegal immigration in the 1990s.

Not one of the Republican contenders has noticed any problems associated with legal immigration, much less called for curtailing it. Jon Huntsman, who comes the closest to adopting Bush-McCain leniency toward illegal immigration without Gingrich’s exotic seasoning, has even implicitly acknowledged that current legal immigration is weighted too much toward unskilled workers.

This shows that for all the restrictionists’ success in defeating both parties’ amnesty proposals, the debate has in some ways moved to the left. Before the 1996 election, a presidential immigration-reform commission proposed reductions in legal immigration. The commission was by chaired by Barbara Jordan, an African-American Democratic congresswoman. President Bill Clinton considered endorsing its findings. A major GOP presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan, wanted to go even further.

Congressman Tom Tancredo, first elected in 1998, was considered a proponent of immigration reform. The restrictionist group he founded in the U.S. House of Representatives is still called the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus. But within a decade, the phrase “immigration reform” was appropriated by proponents of amnesty and increased legal immigration. Today, advocating an expansive legal-immigration policy almost seems to be a political requirement for anyone taking a strong stand against illegal immigration.

Even when restrictionists have gained in influence their success has not changed the parameters of the debate. Texas Rep. Lamar Smith, a veteran of the immigration wars of the ’90s, is now chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Instead of promoting reforms like the Jordan Commission’s, as he did back then, Smith has focused on an E-Verify bill that actually divides restrictionists. Brian Bilbray, the California Republican who replaced Tancredo as head of the Immigration Reform Caucus, talks about legal immigration less often than his group updates its website—which is seldom. The same can be said of Pennsylvania Republican Lou Barletta, the restrictionists’ biggest new star in Congress.

At the grassroots level, voters worried about excessive immigration are motivated by an inchoate sense that the country has lost control of its borders or by vague concerns about cultural transformation. Although united in opposition to specific bills like the McCain-Kennedy amnesty or the DREAM Act, grassroots restrictionists don’t have a detailed legislative program of their own. As Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies has observed, they tend to assume the immigration they dislike is illegal.

This makes these voters susceptible to manipulation. It is why McCain was able to make amends merely by appearing on television with a border county sheriff and saying “complete the danged fence.” Even some leaders in the restrictionist movement are easily swayed, as evidenced by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s endorsement of Rick Perry for president long after the Texas governor ceased to lead in national polls and despite his record on immigration. Religious right leaders have occasionally endorsed apparent frontrunners with dubious records in a misguided effort to secure a place at the table—think Pat Robertson’s 2007 endorsement of Giuliani—but a floundering candidate like Perry? It would be as if Robertson endorsed Gary Johnson.

The professional immigration restrictionists who do have a policy agenda do not command a constituency large enough to motivate politicians to take them seriously. These restrictionists also tend to speak in apocalyptic terms about immigration, demography, and national survival, assigning the issue greater weight than most rank-and-file border-security hawks do. Stan Barnes, the Arizona Republican who challenged Jeff Flake in 2004, notes that voters care about immigration but do not want a candidate to have a monomaniacal focus on it.

The perception that Pearce paid disproportionate attention to immigration hurt him in the recall election, even among voters who basically agreed with him. “I’m a sort of redneck conservative, but for me he just went way too far on immigration,” the New York Times quoted a Mesa resident as saying. “I agree that we can’t have everyone from the third world coming here, but it began to feel like he hated these people, and I don’t. They go to our churches. I know some of them.”

Church plays a big role in the immigration debate. It is frequently noted that business groups and economic libertarians work within the Republican Party against limiting immigration. But social conservatives were indispensable to the defeat of the Jordan Commission reforms in the 1990s, with the Christian Coalition taking strong exception to a proposed move away from family reunification, the policy that lets immigrants bring even quite distant relatives into the country. These groups are far more influential among restrictionist-leaning voters than the Wall Street Journal editorial page or the Chamber of Commerce.

The Catholic Church and mainline Protestant leaders have long been hostile to immigration restrictions, but many prominent evangelicals have also begun to move in that direction. So has the Mormon Church, which worked against Pearce—himself a Mormon—and has many members in states where the immigration issue is particularly potent. These people of faith are increasingly concerned about deporting or keeping out their coreligionists and potential converts.

Hispanic social conservatism is greatly exaggerated, though Bush did well among Latinos identifying as evangelicals in 2004. To the extent that this phenomenon does exist, it is not clear that it makes Hispanics “natural Republicans.” Blacks are even more socially conservative, based on their responses to pollsters and votes on state ballot initiatives, yet they are even more overwhelmingly Democratic. Black churches may occasionally organize against abortion or gay marriage, but they almost never actively oppose the black politicians who routinely vote a liberal line on these issues.

Nevertheless, many social conservatives worry that a restrictionist position on immigration will hurt their efforts to work with like-minded Hispanics. At the end of the day, most such conservatives care more about stopping abortions than stopping immigration.

None of this is to suggest that immigration restriction is a lost cause. Most Americans tell pollsters—the only people in public life who bother to ask them—that they want less immigration, not more. This includes Hispanics and other people of immigrant background. The numbers have been fairly consistent over the years.

By overwhelming majorities, Americans reject the idea of the U.S. becoming a bilingual or even bicultural country. They tolerate a certain level of ethnic pride, like Italian street festivals and exuberant Irish celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day, but they expect what the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte calls “patriotic assimilation.” The laws written by Pearce remain popular in Arizona and elsewhere, with imitations of SB 1070 continuing to advance in state legislatures throughout the nation.

But these cultural and economic concerns have not caused Americans to coalesce around a real plan to alleviate them, much less to form a pressure group as effective as the pro-life movement or organized labor. Though restrictionists are right about the immigration issue’s transformative potential, what they call the “National Question” has yet to reshape American politics.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.