As Ed explained earlier this morning, the “bombshell” dropped by the Los Angeles Times today — that Romneycare provided health care to illegal immigrants who would not otherwise have had access to it — is less a bombshell than the LAT (or Romney’s competitors) would have us believe. Federal law requires emergency health care for illegal immigrants, but emergency care is inordinately expensive. If Romneycare provides illegals with access to cheaper clinical care, then, presumably, fewer taxpayer dollars go to health care for illegal immigrants in Massachusetts now than they did before Romneycare passed. But no GOP-er wants to hear that. So, that’s not the line Romney’s camp is taking on the topic. Political Ticker reports:

“Federal law requires emergency medical care for illegal immigrants. And if illegal immigrants are getting access to additional healthcare in Massachusetts, it’s liberal Gov. Deval Patrick that has made it easier for them to do so. All of the regulatory activities involving the Health Safety Net Fund, including who could get care, were made long after Mitt Romney left office,” said Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul. …

“Mitt Romney’s record on illegal immigration is clear: as governor, he vetoed an in-state tuition bill for illegal immigrants and authorized his state troopers to detain people based on their immigration status. On the other hand, liberal Gov. Patrick has the same position on illegal immigration as Rick Perry – he favors in-state tuition and reversed an executive order to detain illegal immigrants – and neither can be trusted to deal with such an important issue,” added Saul.

Whew. Fact is, both Romney and Perry are squishes on illegal immigration — but who can really blame them? When faced with the reality of a person in the country illegally, needing health care or wanting to attend college, it’s far more difficult to think of the rule of law than it is when considering the issue in the abstract. The issue of illegal immigration will reveal people’s inconsistencies if ever an issue will.

Conservatives tend to believe in natural law and natural rights. So, we necessarily think illegal immigrants have the same inalienable rights as any person. But we also tend to think of fewer government services as “rights.” Few conservatives will argue, for example, that government-provided health care or education are “rights,” for example. So, why should any state in the U.S. provide in-state tuition for illegals? Why should federal law require even emergency care for illegals without, at least, some repercussion? (Maybe emergency rooms could be authorized to check for legal status or something. They would still have to provide care — but could later turn the immigrant in to the proper authorities. Is that feasible in the context of emergency room care?) Conservatives are understandably upset when political leaders act as though these services are rights — and when leaders fail to see that the provision of these services to illegal immigrants will serve as incentives to enter the country illegally (and, thus, to erode the rule of law).

On some level, we have to win the debate about whether health care and education are “rights” before it will ever seem clear and easy for a governor to deny illegal immigrants either of them.

But, in all of this, both Romney and Perry have missed a key opportunity to pinpoint blame on the federal government (with just one exception that I can recall). If the federal government (a) secured the borders or (b) didn’t require consequence-free emergency health care for illegal immigrants, then Perry’s in-state tuition law would have been unnecessary and so would the shadier parts of health care provision for illegals under Romneycare.