MIAMI In response to mounting anti-government protests in Venezuela, Florida politicians are calling on the Obama administration to grant political asylum for people who have fled the South American nation, as well as sanctions against officials responsible for the violence.
U.S. Representative Joe Garcia said Venezuelans living in the United States deserve special consideration as they are a "target" of the Venezuelan government, which blames the United States in part for the unrest that in recent weeks has killed at least 13 people.
"To ask these people to return when we know there is credible fear of persecution ... is unjust," he told a news conference at Miami International Airport on Tuesday, accompanied by several Venezuelan exile activists.
Florida is home to more than 100,000 Venezuelan immigrants, according to the U.S. census, and the population has grown steadily since the country elected a Socialist government in 1998, first under president Hugo Chavez and last year his successor, Nicolas Maduro.
Several thousand people attended an "SOS Venezuela" rally on Saturday in the Doral suburb of Miami to show solidarity with anti-government demonstrators.
The crisis, in which more than 500 people have been arrested and about 150 injured over two weeks, has brought remonstrations from the U.S. government.
The Obama administration has denied any involvement in the unrest, although celebrities such as Madonna and Cher have spoken out against the Maduro government.
The United States on Tuesday ordered three Venezuelan diplomats to leave the country in reprisal for Maduro's expulsion of three American embassy staff accused of fomenting protests.
Speaking on the Senate floor on Monday, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, addressed the street violence in Venezuela and called on the Obama administration to pursue "individuals responsible for these atrocities."
He showed enlarged photographs of demonstrators, including opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez and a 22-year-old local beauty queen who died after being shot in the head.
In a letter to president Barack Obama delivered on Monday, Garcia, a Democrat whose congressional district includes some South American enclaves, asked the president to use his executive power to assist undocumented Venezuelans, including a special immigration designation known as Deferred Enforced Action, that would prevent them from being deported and allow them to obtain work permits in the United States.
Deferred departure has been granted to young people who were brought to the United States as children, as well 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.
Venezuelans in the United States are living under a variety of migratory status - some with pending asylum cases or business visas, and others facing deportation, Garcia explained.
Out of 405 asylum applications received from Venezuelans in 2011, only 205 we granted, according to Garcia's office.
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, last week sent a letter to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requesting an investigation into the Venezuelan government's response to the protests.
Two other Miami Republican members of Congress, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, also say they plan to file legislation to block U.S. visas for Venezuelan government officials responsible for the violence.
(Editing by David Adams and Gunna Dickson)