Los Angeles Street Vendors Eager to Be Legal

For years, immigrant advocates here have urged the city to legalize street vending. Many newcomers – including some who lack the legal documentation to get a job – sell produce, crafts and other items on the sidewalk while trying to gain an economic foothold.

In mid-February, the city council unanimously approved a plan to decriminalize sidewalk sales that in the past could bring charges putting undocumented sellers at risk of deportation. The council voted in January to draft an ordinance to legalize the practice.

Merced Sanchez, who’s among an estimated 10,000 vendors working in the city, credits President Donald Trump for prodding the council’s decision. Since taking office January 20, the Republican leader has acted quickly to follow through on a campaign pledge to crack down on illegal immigration. In mid-February, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released new plans expanding the pool of illegal immigrants who would be subject to deportation.  

“I thank Mr. Donald Trump,” Sanchez said. “Thanks to him, the council mobilized. This means peace. It means being able to sell without fearing that the police will show up.”

Developing a permit process and other regulations could take months, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing city personnel.

Meanwhile, street vending still is considered a misdemeanor. Offenders could face administrative fines starting at $250 for a first offense, $500 for a second and $1,000 for a third, Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office, told VOA in an email.

But the city council’s vote means vendors no longer would be threatened with criminal charges, which carry penalties of up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines.

The city filed 30 criminal cases in 2016, Mateljan said. He noted that food trucks fall into a separate category.

Doug Smith, a staff attorney with the pro bono legal firm Public Counsel and member of the Los Angeles Street Vendor Campaign, applauded the council’s decision. He said the vendor-led campaign had been working with the council on a plan for more than three years.

An economic lifeline

“For many recent immigrants, street vending is the first step to building a business in the United States,” Smith said, calling it “an economic lifeline” for many others who have been “shut out of the formal economy.”

Besides decriminalization, the council has committed to developing a permitting system and an amnesty program for people previously charged with vending offenses, Smith said. “A criminal citation puts a lot of folks at risk for priority deportation and hinders their ability to access benefits and services and eventually acquire citizenship,” he noted.

Permits would address concerns about food safety, public health and public access to sidewalks. 

“It’s good for them to give us a permit,” said Guadalupe Santiago, who sells hot dogs from a small cart. “If they ask me for a better cart, I will need to buy it because I know it will be for my own good and for the city’s.”

Santiago, a mother of two, said being able to work without fear would more than compensate for the costs of compliance.

The city also will need to work out details of what vendors can sell and when and where they can operate.

Concerns about oversight

Norm Langer, who owns the popular Langer’s Delicatessen in the MacArthur Park district, has mixed feelings about the measure.

“It’s a way for them to make a living,” he said of vendors, noting their permits and sales taxes could generate more revenue for the city and increase foot traffic for other businesses.

“The problem I see is there are no funds for enforcement,” he said.

Langer fears there’s not enough health department workers to inspect tamale stands or fresh-cut fruit carts, not enough police to patrol and ensure that sidewalk peddlers don’t block pedestrians.

A Trump supporter, Langer also doesn’t want to make things easy for undocumented people. “We have laws. … Laws aren’t written for each group, they’re written for people as a whole.”

Attorney Smith said whether they’re immigrants or not, vendors “buy local, they create jobs. … In some neighborhoods, they’re the only source of healthy food available.”

Legalizing vendors helps the city and its residents, Smith added. “They’re part of the fabric of this city.”

Carol Guensburg contributed to this report.

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