Merced Sanchez, 56, became a street vendor in Los Angeles after her storefront burned down about 10 years ago. Among the city’s street vendors—who famously provide bacon-wrapped hot dogs, chili-powdered fresh fruit, and frozen ices known as paletas to the hungry passerby—Sanchez makes her living selling clothes and hats. She says her work in Los Angeles’ downtown Piñata district isn’t easy: “You suffer from the heat, the cold, the rain.”
And then there’s the police.
The problem for Sanchez, and the roughly 50,000 other street vendors here, is that Los Angeles is the only major city in the United States without a permitting system for them. Street vending is technically illegal, leaving vendors subject to “vigorous police harassment, constant ticketing, onerous criminal justice debt, bench warrants for failures to appear, arrests, and incarceration,” according to a 2015 report by the Criminal Defense Clinic at UCLA School of Law. Since most street vendors are immigrants, largely from Latin America, their legal status compounds the situation.
"Advocates for immigrant rights have been pushing the city to legalize and permit street vendors since the early 1990s."
Advocates for immigrant rights have been pushing the city to legalize and permit street vendors since the early 1990s. Legislation has been proposed many times, but has never been adopted city-wide. The election of Donald Trump has changed all that. Trump has promised to deport illegal immigrants, beginning with those who have a criminal record. “What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, where a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” Trump said in a November interview with 60 Minutes.
Trump is talking about deporting immigrants who are “criminals” but, in an executive order signed on Jan. 25, defined that term so broadly as to include those convicted of misdemeanors and those accused of crimes but not yet charged. So, despite its status as a “sanctuary city,” where local police are prohibited from collaborating with federal immigration enforcement, Los Angeles’ street vendor law would end up helping the Trump administration deport immigrants by labeling vendors as lawbreakers.
The City Council took note of that and on Jan. 31 voted to begin the process of legalizing and permitting street vending. The proposal not only authorized the city attorney to begin drafting a formal permit structure for street vendors, but also decriminalized the practice immediately. Police will cite but not arrest street vendors until a permitting law is passed.
“Recent talks about changes to our nation’s immigration policy, including threats to deport millions of undocumented immigrants—starting with those with criminal records—has created significant fear amongst our immigrant communities,” Council members Joe Buscaino and Curren Price wrote in a letter to the rest of the City Council dated Nov. 22. “Continuing to impose criminal misdemeanor penalties for vending disproportionately affects, and unfairly punishes, undocumented immigrants, and could potentially put them at risk for deportation.”
"Trump’s threats have 'sparked a new urgency and a new interest in figuring out how we support the most marginalized folks in our communities.'”
Local advocates for immigrant rights rejoiced at the step toward decriminalization and a permit system. Rudy Espinoza is executive director of the Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, a community development organization that’s helped lead the coalition to legalize street vending. He says that Trump’s threats have “sparked a new urgency and a new interest in figuring out how we support the most marginalized folks in our communities.”
Sanchez adds that vendors themselves deserve much of the credit for the change. Organized under the Legalize Street Vending coalition, vendors held rallies and days of action. They called council members and threatened to gather in their offices until they were granted meetings to discuss the need for legalization and regulation, Sanchez says, adding, “Protests have helped advance our policy and the situation is now getting better.”
Sidewalk Sale Economics
Victor Narro, director of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, explains that the campaign gained urgency from the poverty in which most vendors live. For many street vendors, he explains, selling food or other wares outside is the only way they have to make ends meet. “The disparity between the rich and the poor is more prevalent in Los Angeles than in New York, Chicago, and other major cities—and yet we have a policy of criminalizing street vendors.”
Street vendors earn an average of $10,089 yearly, according to a 2015 report by The Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles-based think tank. The report suggests that, despite their low incomes, these micro-entrepreneurs are a significant motor of economic activity and create more than 5,000 jobs, mostly among the vendors’ suppliers. The report estimates that the city and state could pull in $124 million a year in tax revenue if the industry were permitted and taxed.
“If tomorrow I don’t buy the merchandise I need to vend this … then I am not generating revenue for that particular business,” Merced explains. “They’ll be missing my money.”
Not just Los Angeles
The Los Angeles City Council’s decriminalization of street vending is one case in a larger movement calling for local governments to enact policies that would weaken the Trump administration’s ability to detain and deport immigrants. In Chicago, a city where President Trump has called for increased federal presence in the name of “law and order,” civil rights organizations met on Jan. 26, calling on their local government to expand its sanctuary city policies.
“Sanctuary—as the city of Chicago had defined it—doesn’t go far enough,” said Janae Bonsu, national public policy chair for the Black Youth Project 100, at the press conference. “Until the mayor and city council shows a real commitment to ending the criminalization of Black and Latino people in policy and practice, sanctuary will remain an empty word to our people.”
Mijente, a Chicago-based community organizing group that also took part in the press conference, released a report the next day outlining its vision for sanctuary cities, stressing that restricting collaboration between police departments and immigration enforcement should be the minimum, not the norm. Decriminalization of nonviolent offenses, including driving under the influence of alcohol, petty theft, sex work, and drug-related offenses, the report says, is crucial to stopping deportation.
The report concludes by asserting that “community self-defense” tactics, including direct action, will be needed along with legislative solutions.