female appearing street vendor pushing a metal cart with an orange and green shade umbrella in the middle of a street

The Safe Sidewalk Vending Act in Context

Our laws are intended to protect what we as a nation have determined to be our rights, and each ordinance, code, and law has a story. Today, we will dive into the story behind the 2018 Safe Sidewalk Vending Act (SB 946), which decriminalizes street vending. You may have been hearing about sidewalk vending in the news or on social media and you may have purchased some food from a sidewalk vendor! Local street vendors have made headlines due to “a string of violence targeting vendors in the past several months” (Chang, 2021). What led to the passage of the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act in California? According to Section 1 of the bill, “It is the intent of the Legislature to promote entrepreneurship and support immigrant and low-income communities.” Who are these communities, what makes sidewalk vending so important to them, why was it decriminalized, and why was it criminalized in the first place?

Who are these communities?

Stephen Lee, in his article titled Racial Justice for Street Vendors states that, “In Los Angeles, street vending is heavily associated with Latinx migrants” (Lee, S. 2021). What is the legal history which might have led Latinx migrants to take up this particular route of entrepreneurship? To better understand the diverse immigrant community in southern California and what might link them to sidewalk vending, I did some background reading. Inventing Latinos, by Laura E. Gómez, “offers an account of how Latinos came to be” (Gómez, 2020). America for Americans by Erika Lee tells a multitude of stories of immigration to the United States from the beginning to today.

The Latinx community is diverse and many individuals may not identify with the term, but Latinos, as described by Gómez, have a shared, convoluted history. To put it very simply, there was a cycle of inviting Latinx peoples from Central American countries and Caribbean islands into the United States when low-wage, arduous labor was needed and removing them, sometimes without regard for citizenship, when labor demand was lower. During the Great Depression there were mass deportations of Latinx immigrants and citizens and from 1929 to 1935, the federal government deported 82,400 Mexicans–46 percent of all deportees, even though they made up less than 1 percent of the total US population” (Gómez, 2020; Lee, E. 2019). They were invited back again in the following decades through the “Bracero Program,” and deport them once again in “Operation Wetback” (Gómez, 2020). All this and so much more occurred after over 100 thousand Mexicans and all Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland were promised citizenship in The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 and the Jones Act of 1917, respectively (Gómez, 2020).

What makes sidewalk vending so important to them?

To understand from a more personal perspective, I read The Undocumented Americans, by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, which she describes as “a work of creative nonfiction” which she

“attempt[ed] to write from a place of shared trauma, shared memories, shared pain.” The stories shared take place mostly on the east coast and never mention sidewalk vendors, but I imagine the determination, fear, love, dedication, and loneliness she describes is felt similarly no matter which region of the United States one resides in. One common theme amongst immigrant workers is the abuse they experience at the hands of their employers. When describing day laborers, she writes, “employers are free to do with and to them whatever they want.” This can include lack of break time, protective gear or transportation from a remote job, and it often includes wage theft (Villavicenio, 2020). For housekeepers, many have experienced sexual assault and “have had their wages stolen, [and] have been psychologically abused and then forced into silence by employers who threaten to call ICE on them.” Street vending may be dangerous. One vendor died a few months ago in Ontario, hit by a suspected DUI driver (Seidman, 2021). However, being an entrepreneur means you are not dependent upon an employer, and therefore are not subject to that particular kind of abuse.

Why was it decriminalized?

There is a “greater percentage of foreign-born individuals today [who] are unauthorized compared to previous generations” due to the “limited number of opportunities for unauthorized migrants to become lawful permanent residents,” and because there are increased “enforcement resources at the border” and an “absence of legal avenues” to return, they are “effectively marooned” in the U.S. (Lee, S. 2021). Decriminalization helps to “ensure that minor contact with the police, which might ordinarily lead to a fine or minor jail time, does not lead to more severe consequences like removal from the country” and instead “imposes a set of escalating fines” which takes “into account a person’s “ability to pay” and prevents “a “snowballing” effect, in which minor infractions can quickly balloon into serious violations with criminal penalties.” This effort is tied with the TRUST Act and the “‘sanctuary’ movement in California” (Lee, S. 2021).

Why was it criminalized in the first place?

You may be surprised to find that many of the talking points used to describe Latinx immigrants today were once used to describe German, Irish, and Southern and Eastern European immigrants. They were deemed violent, immoral and unassimilable because they were said to be too different from “native” English, Anglo-saxon Americans (Lee, E. 2019). Concerns with how these groups might change the culture of the United States if they continued to grow led to policies limiting who could come from where when migrating to the States. Since then, we have recycled those same stereotypes to build upon those policies. It did not take much to spark fear of specific groups of immigrants.

Laws that “disregarded the interests of [migrant] street vendors” in Los Angeles go back to the late 1800s, when the licensing fees for disproportionately Chinese “vegetable peddlers” were increased, while fees for “mostly white” “fruit peddlers” did not (Lee, S. 2021). Like Mexicans and Mexican-Americans during the Depression, in 1870, the Chinese people residing in Washington were only 1 percent of the population, yet endured “some of the worst anti-Chinese violence” and from 1870 to 1880 there were only 139,000 compared to the “nearly 3.2 million, mostly [European]” immigrants, yet “their presence sparked some of the most violent and racist campaigns in US history” (Lee, E. 2019). Similarly, people from China were invited to the U.S., and their labor became “indispensable” in the west, being “hired again and again for jobs that were believed to be too dirty, dangerous, or degrading for white men and were paid on a separate and lower wage scale from whites” and “cities and states passed a range of laws that discriminated against the Chinese, barred them from certain jobs and neighborhoods” (Lee, E. 2019). It is not hard to imagine that street vending appealed to Chinese immigrants and citizens with little money to invest in a brick and mortar establishment to sell their wares when opportunities were slim.

A long, convoluted history has shaped the lives of street vendors. The legal history has determined who is most likely to take up the profession, how interactions with law enforcement play out, and their vulnerability to violence due to their visibility, isolation, and the perceptions of illegality of the profession and of citizenship status of its members which may lead attackers to assume crimes against vendors will not be reported. While staff at the law library cannot interpret the law, we can share it. Patrons can read SB 946 and what law professors and historians have to say about it (references and brief author bios are provided below). Whether a citizen or not in the United States, federal, state, and local laws have a direct impact on all who reside here. The law library exists to provide access to the law and we hope that by providing legal information, residents can have a better understanding of such formative regulations as the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act.


Chang, Hetty (2021) Neighborhood Helps Take Down 3 People Who Attacked Street Vendor. Found at


Lee, Erika (2019) America for Americans.

Lee, Stephen (2021) Racial Justice for Street Vendors found in the California Law Review.

Gómez, Laura E. (2020) Inventing Latinos.

Seidman, Lila (2021) Suspected DUI driver strikes 2 fruit vendors, killing 1, in Ontario. Found at


Villavicencio, Karla C. (2020) The Undocumented Americans.

Author Bios

Erika Lee is “One of the nation’s leading immigration and Asian American historians, Erika Lee teaches American history at the University of Minnesota, where she is a Regents Professor, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, and the Director of the Immigration History Research Center.”

Stephen Lee is a professor of law at UCI. He “received his B.A. from Stanford University, his M.A. from UCLA, and his J.D. from UC Berkeley School of Law” and “writes about immigrants and immigration law.”

Laura E. Gómez is a professor of law at UCLA. In 2000, she “became only the second Latina tenured at a top-20 law school in the U.S. [She holds] joint appointments in the Sociology Department, a department consistently ranked in the top-10 nationally, and the Department of Chicana & Chicano Studies and Central American Studies which offers the nation’s only PhD in Chicana/o Studies.”

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is “one of the first undocumented students to be accepted into Harvard University who graduated in 2011 and is now a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Yale University.”


By rcll

November 05, 2021

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