Amid political unrest, Miami Congressman Joe Garcia asks President Obama to let more Venezuelans stay in U.S.

With anti-government protests persisting in Venezuela, Miami Congressman Joe Garcia has asked President Barack Obama to grant more political asylum applications from and cease deportations to the South American country.

In a letter to Obama sent Monday, Garcia said the latest unrest, which Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has blamed in part on the United States, makes Venezuelans who have lived in the U.S. a target if they return home.

“These people not only have a legitimate fear of persecution” if they return to Venezuela, Garcia told the Miami Herald. “They’ve also become a part of our community.”

Garcia, a Democrat whose district extends from Kendall to Key West, asked the president to use his executive power to “employ all possible actions” to assist Venezuelans, including authorizing a special immigration designation that would allow them to legally live and work in the U.S. That designation, known as Deferred Enforced Departure, has been granted to Liberians who fled armed conflict.

“In light of the Venezuelan government’s continuous assault on human rights and its disregard for the safety and security of its people, the United States must take these steps so that those who have left can begin productive lives in the United States while their brethren continue to fight for freedom and democracy in Venezuela,” Garcia wrote.

He has scheduled a news conference Tuesday at Miami International Airport to push for his request. The Obama administration has denied any involvement in the Venezuelan turmoil and called for dialogue among the government and opposition.

With protests entering a second week, Venezuela has become the most pressing foreign policy matter for politicians of both parties in South Florida, which is home to the largest population of Venezuelans outside that country. Thousands protested Saturday in the Venezuelan stronghold of Doral to show solidarity with demonstrators back home who oppose Maduro, who succeeded Hugo Chávez after last March.

Two weeks ago, Maduro publicly called Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, “ el loco de los locos” (the craziest of the crazies) after Rubio condemned the Venezuelan president and his “thugs.” On the Senate floor Monday, Rubio showed enlarged photographs of the street violence, mentioning detained opposition leader Leopoldo López and slain 22-year-old beauty queen Génesis Carmona.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who attended a National Governors Association meeting Monday at the White House, said the president should announce that the U.S. is considering sanctions against Venezuela such as freezing U.S. bank accounts of Maduro “and his gang” and revoking U.S. visas “of anyone involved in attacking peaceful demonstrators.”

“The president must show that the U.S. will stand up against oppression and support those yearning to be free,” Scott said in a statement.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, sent a letter last week to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requesting an investigation into the Venezuelan government’s crackdown on protesters. At least 12 had died as of Monday.

Two other Miami Republican members of Congress, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, said last week they plan to file legislation to block U.S. visas and financial transactions for Venezuelan government officials tied to any repression. Their measure would also denounce human-rights violations and call for sanctions against Venezuela, including reduced U.S. oil imports. Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart have also asked Obama — and the Organization of American States — for serious action denouncing the violence.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from Weston, another Venezuelan bastion, posted a photograph on Instragram last week expressing solidarity with anti-government protesters.

Garcia said Obama should consider taking executive action to help Venezuelans in the U.S. In his State of the Union address last month, Obama promised to use his authority more frequently to work around a gridlocked Congress. Expediting political-asylum applications, ceasing deportations or enacting the special immigration designation for Venezuelans fall well within that purview, Garcia said.

“He has ample authority here to define these” cases, he said.

Last year, when Congress was considering comprehensive immigration reform, Garcia said he would submit legislation to grant permanent residency to undocumented Venezuelans without criminal records who had arrived in the United States from the date Chávez took office in 1999. His so-called Liberty Act, like the immigration law, went nowhere.