Illegal immigration is an issue that transcends differences between Republicans and Democrats. It is a problem that has impacted many of our communities, leading to an increase in crime and poverty, as well as eliminating jobs and opportunities across the region. It is a major problem. It is not, however, a problem that we are powerless to address.

First and foremost, even though I oppose illegal immigration, I do not condemn those who have made the decision to come to our nation illegally. They are drawn to this nation for the same reasons our ancestors were drawn here: increased opportunities with the chance for a new start. But skirting the laws of the United States of America is not the right way to forge a new start. Illegal immigrants now live an underground existence, taken advantage of by business owners looking for cheap labor and by the undesirable elements of our society.

You don't have to look far for examples of this. Here are two from our region:

Ÿ In 2010, Noel Cala-Leliebre, who Hazleton police confirmed was living in the United States illegally, was charged with numerous drug-related offenses when police discovered approximately 30 grams of raw, unpackaged heroin and 75 bags of packaged heroin in his home.

Ÿ In Reading, also in 2010, an illegal immigrant from the British Virgin Islands was sentenced to five to 10 years in state prison for pouring gasoline on his ex-girlfriend and setting her on fire back in 2005. He will be deported after he completes his sentence.

One example of how illegal immigration affects communities is right here in our region. The operators of a local construction company were putting out bids for nearby projects, but found that they just couldn't compete. They weren't securing these projects because competing companies were submitting much lower bids. Those companies were relying on work from illegal immigrants who were earning much less than the minimum wage. In the end, this local company, which was trying to play by the rules, couldn't compete with those companies driven by a desire for a bigger bottom line.

According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, there are 180,000 illegal immigrants in Pennsylvania. Those illegal immigrants cost YOU, our state's taxpayers $1.3 billion every year. Expand those figures to the national level and you're looking at a cost of $113 billion annually. According to FAIR, Pennsylvania's taxpayers spend nearly $80 million per year on Medicaid services for illegal immigrants, $33 million per year for children's health insurance benefits and more than $220 million for other welfare services. FAIR estimates that illegal immigrants have taken 128,000 jobs that may have gone to legal Pennsylvania residents.

That is the reason that I have introduced two bills to combat this problem. The first is House Bill 1628, which would prohibit any illegal immigrant from possessing, using or attempting to use an ACCESS card or electronic benefit card. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for such benefits, but some cards have fallen into the hands of people who are in this country illegally. The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for consideration.

The second is House Bill 1643, which would specifically require applicants for public assistance to be able to prove lawful presence in the United States in order to gain access to state benefits. This problem has resulted in a massive drain of our state's funds. In fact, in 2011, the Pennsylvania Office of the Auditor General uncovered $3.3 million in public benefits awarded to ineligible recipients. This includes reports of illegal immigrants using Pennsylvania ACCESS cards in places all over North America. House Bill 1643 has yet to receive a committee referral.

I should note that these are just two bills that have been introduced to combat illegal immigration. House Bill 856, introduced by my colleague, Rep. Rob Kauffman of Cumberland and Franklin counties, sought to end human trafficking. That bill received strong bipartisan support in the House last session, passing by a vote of 167 to 23. No action was taken in the Senate, but the bill has been reintroduced this session.

In closing, I need to reiterate: The reason to combat illegal immigration, of course, is the drain that it causes to taxpayers. But it is also because it is not fair that these people come to our country only to exist underground with no chance of success. It's time for a real conversation here in Pennsylvania and across the nation, on real solutions to ending this very serious problem.