“I’m in love with America,” says Cuban-born attorney and Republican political strategist Alberto “Al” Cardenas. “It gave us an opportunity that I could not have had anywhere else. …I believe that every citizen should have an obligation to not only do for themselves and their families, but to a bigger cause. That cause is your country.”
Since arriving in Florida with his family at age 11, Cardenas has taken that mandate seriously. Today, while overseeing the Governmental Affairs Practice for his government relations firm The Advocacy Group at Cardenas Partners and working as senior partner at the international law firm Squire Patton Boggs, a commitment to public service still drives Cardenas. He’s chaired Florida’s Republican Party twice, served as former member of the Republican National Committee’s Executive Committee, and is a past president of the influential American Conservative Union. He holds the distinction of having attended and represented the State of Florida at every Republican National Convention from 1976 until 2008.
And that’s not where his service ends. “I’ve always liked to have a fairly full plate when it comes to public service,” he quips. At various times, he’s been called upon by U.S. presidents, including Reagan and George H.W. Bush, for service: leading a transition team for the United States Department of Commerce, chairing the President’s Commission on Small and Minority Business Affairs, and serving on the Board of Directors of the Federal National Mortgage Association and the President’s Trade Policy Commission.
Yet Cardenas came from humble beginnings. In 1960, after the Cuban government tossed private enterprise out the window in the lead-up to the Castro revolution, Cardenas’ family immigrated to Florida. His father went from working as the president of one of the largest banks in Cuba to serving as bookkeeper for a small American trucking company. His mother, who had never worked before, started a business buying lace for Catholic women to wear to church. And even Cardenas, as a child, contributed. At the age of 12, he had three jobs in addition to school: mowing lawns, selling doughnuts, and delivering newspapers. “All of that went into the family kitty,” he recalls. “We literally came with the shirts on our backs.”
Cardenas attended high school and college in South Florida, then law school at New Jersey’s Seton Hall. To him, Miami is a shining example of how immigration can help local economies blossom and flourish. “I personally witnessed, and have been at the heart and center, of the evolution of Miami from a sleepy southern town to an international Mecca for many,” he recalls. “I’ve lived the dream of seeing how immigration can be of help. Embracing orderly immigration has allowed others to contribute to the city’s fascinating growth and development.”
Frankly, white America is shrinking in numbers…without an adequate immigration policy, we couldn’t sustain Social Security, we couldn’t sustain Medicare, Medicaid.
But Cardenas also says the United States hasn’t adequately grappled with immigration reform. “I’ve been a witness to the fact that here in America, we haven’t really dealt with the issue for 30-some years,” he says, noting that the last time Congress delved into the issue was in 1986, under President Ronald Reagan. He points to shifting demographics and the changing landscape of the American workforce. “Frankly, white America is shrinking in numbers…without an adequate immigration policy, we couldn’t sustain Social Security, we couldn’t sustain Medicare, Medicaid. None of our entitlement programs can be sustained by a shrinking population.” If no action is taken, he warns, the United States is at risk of becoming more like Japan or other European countries, with aging workforces and economies that are “fluttering, flat, or worse.” A vibrant young workforce increases productivity, sustains economic growth, and provides better opportunities for success for all. “The only way you can have sustained growth is with a reasonable immigration policy that addresses our labor needs and at the same time allows us, as a nation, to have an orderly growth that leads to prosperity hopefully for all,” Cardenas says.
Yet order is also required. He says because the government has ignored the issue of immigration, we have little sense of who is actually in the country. “People who don’t deserve to be here should not be here, and those who do should have legal status so that they don’t live in the shadows,” he says. Cardenas, whose career as a political operator and savvy strategist is steeped in conservatism, recognizes that compromise and a problem-solving mindset is necessary. “If you can leave politics at the door and come on in and sit around the table in good faith, you can have an immigration solution,” he says. “Our country needs it. You just have to put politics aside on something of this magnitude and get it done.”