Texas Gov. Rick Perry took a serious blow that dampened conservatives’ enthusiasm for his candidacy when he tried to defend his position on illegal immigration (e.g. opposition to E-Verify, support for tax breaks for illegal immigrants for state universities). In the last debate he attacked Mitt Romney with an allegation that first surfaced in the 2008 campaign that a lawn service working for Romney hired an illegal immigrant. Now the Perry campaign is very excited about a Los Angeles Times story saying that RomneyCare language was broad enough to allow illegal immigrant to get state care.

Romney spokesman Andrea Saul told me: “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. 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.”

The Perry team responds that the original language was drafted so broadly that the law was intended to cover illegal immigrants. The Romney team disputes this, as the Times story states: “The Romney campaign referred questions to Tim Murphy, who served as Romney’s state health and human services secretary. Murphy said the governor never intended the Health Safety Net to serve undocumented immigrants. ‘Our view when we signed the law was that all benefits would be for people in the commonwealth who were here legally,’ Murphy said, noting that the regulations implementing the program were written after Romney left office in 2007.”

But wait a second. Do any states scrutinize patients for citizenship status before treating them? A Google search turns up a plethora of stories on the phenomenon in many states, including Texas. A USA Today article from 2008 found:

As the debate over the residency status of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants boils, another battle is simmering over what — if any — benefits they deserve while they’re here. Some of the most heated arguments on the issue focus on health care. So far, immigrants are losing:

In Texas, where the state comptroller estimates illegal immigrants cost hospitals $1.3 billion in 2006, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston is considering denying cancer care to such immigrants.

The report observed: “Data on health care costs for illegal immigrants are sketchy because hospitals and community health centers don’t ask about patients’ legal status. In California, a 2004 study by the Federation for American Immigration Reform put the state’s annual cost at $1.4 billion. Similar studies in Colorado and Minnesota in 2005 came up with much smaller estimates: $31 million and $17 million, respectively.” (Emphasis added.)

In December 2008 the Houston Chronicle reported: “The state of Texas and local hospital districts spent an estimated $677 million to provide health care to illegal immigrants in a year, a new study says. The survey, issued by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, said that most of the money — $597 million — was spent by local hospital districts for the immigrants’ care during the state’s fiscal year that ended on Aug. 31, 2006.”

I asked the Perry campaign whether there is any statute or regulation in Texas prohibiting nonemergency treatment of illegal aliens under Medicaid or other programs. I have not received a response.

The Perry team has a limited point here: Once you create a state-financed or subsidized healthcare system you may wind up treating illegal aliens. But the same is true for any state service when rigorous checking for citizenship status is involved. Moreover, there are obvious reasons not to dissuade illegal immigrants from seeking medical treatment. While they may not have a medical emergency, they may well have a communicable disease that poses a public health hazard.

The Perry camp, for whatever reason, believes that by re-raising this issue it will recapture the voters lost over the illegal immigration issue. Perhaps, but those voters could well choose another candidate who espouses hardline views, such as Herman Cain or Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) It is far from clear whether this actually helps Perry. But a good offense is the best defense, I suppose.

On a day when Perry is overhauling his campaign, facing coverage of his birther and secession views and no doubt greatly displeased with a scandalous story of mismanagement of the state centers for the disabled (“Perry and his staff repeatedly downplayed the severity of abuse and neglect allegations at Texas’ state-run institutions for the disabled — until conditions became so dire that the U.S. attorney general was forced to intervene”) you can understand why the Times story would be a tempting distraction.