LYNWOOD, Calif. -- Immigrants supporting Mexico's formerly long-ruling political party have opened a campaign office in the Los Angeles area for its 2012 presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto.
The office, opened Thursday at a Mexico-themed mall in this suburb, is an unofficial headquarters for the party in Southern California and represents a shift both for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and for the increasingly influential communities of Los Angeles-area immigrants from various regions of Mexico.
Officially the office is for a group calling itself the Committee of Migrants United for Mexico. Leaders said they would be phone-banking with their relatives back home to encourage them to vote for the PRI.
"We opened this office so that any migrant who has a proposal [can] pass it to us, and we pass it" to the presidential candidate, said Roman Cabral, a former migrant-abroad state legislator from Zacatecas state.
"We will have direct communication with Mexico City," he said.
Photographs of Peña Nieto adorn the walls of the mostly bare new office, where tortas and pan de dulce were served for participants and journalists, a party custom.
And just like back in Mexico, the PRI activists wore the party's bright red campaign color and spoke glowingly about Peña Nieto -- who is leading in polls -- and what they described as the party's "regenerated" identity.
The PRI for many years resisted reforms that would have given Mexicans abroad the right to vote. Their new presence in Southern California also reflects a change in the party's ideals and shows that the "new PRI" will pay attention to migrants' needs, activists said.
Yet at the office opening at the suburban Plaza Mexico mall, the PRI members found themselves facing tough questions from local Spanish-language reporters. How could you support the PRI, one reporter asked, if decades of PRI policies and corruption scandals pushed many migrants to come to the United States?
"Why would I vote for the PRI if the PRI was the reason that we came here? Well, I respond, 'Why don't you go back?' It's been 12 years without the PRI and no one's gone back," said Felipe Cabral, also of Zacatecas.
"The last 10 years is when the most migrants came, and that shows the bad work done by other parties," said Mike Gonzalez, an immigrant from Jalisco, referring to President Felipe Calderon's ruling National Action Party, or PAN.
Another reporter asked what the migrant PRI members thought of the grassroots student demonstrations in Mexico against their candidate. Protesters argue that the dominant news network Televisa favors Peña Nieto's candidacy.
"I think Mr. Peña Nieto has won his media power through his good record," migrant Arturo Vega said.
The PRI members said they would propose that, if elected, Peña Nieto open a Cabinet-level ministry for migrant affairs. They said their effort in L.A. was entirely volunteer-based.
Peña Nieto leads by at least 15 points in most polls, ahead of Josefina Vazquez Mota of PAN and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of a three-party leftist coalition.
This year, more than 59,000 Mexicans living abroad requested mail-in ballots for the July 1 vote, electoral officials in Mexico City said.
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Angel Morales, center, and other migrant voters answer questions during the opening of a new office for the Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico at the Plaza Mexico mall in Lynwood, May 24, 2012. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times