Excerpted From: Khushpreet Choumwer, Racialization of Street Vendors: The Criminalization of Ethnic Minority Workers in California, 34 Hastings Journal on Gender and the Law 13 (Winter, 2023) (126 ) (Full Document)


KhushpreetChoumwerThere is a historical association between immigrant communities being street vendors in the United States and experiencing over-policing, societal stigmas, and stereotypes. Their means of work and financial stability have been viewed as informal and improper compared to their ethnic majority counterparts. For example, the recent glorification of “shop local” and “buy local” has disproportionately excluded many street vendors, but many supporters have used this to fight back against the violence directed toward street vendors in their communities (e.g., exposure through a social media post or establishing a GoFundMe account for a vendor).

In this article, I explore how racialized identities of street vendors have exacerbated the criminalization of ethnic minority workers in the United States economy, specifically in California. The contemporary moments and problems, like those posed at Super Bowl LVI, will highlight the ongoing effects of ‘crimmigration,’ the intersection of criminal and immigration law, on street vendors since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. I will argue that street vendors face systematic barriers, including safety at work, owing to harassment by law enforcement and street violence. These arguments arise from in-depth interviews with street vendors from San Joaquin County. Research on street vendors overwhelmingly discusses the consequences of racial politics and over-policing, such as harassment, issuance of fines, and compromising one's dignity to support themself and/or their family. Even when street vendors legitimately obtain licenses and/or permits, they describe their work as over-scrutinized by local authorities and other civilians who do not approve of their means.

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Legal street vending remains to be exclusive. Many of the barriers described in this report and discussed by street vendors need to be addressed immediately. The following specific policy recommendations highlight how cities, counties, and the state could proactively intervene in alleviating barriers impeding street vendors.

  1. Expand materials and translate program requirements, specifically applications. Counties and states can provide additional materials that summarize what is necessary to comply with local and state regulations for street vending. There should be specific and separate guidance and materials for sidewalk food carts. In addition, materials (i.e., applications) should be accessible in at least five of the most common languages in each county. For example, the top five spoken languages in San Joaquin County are English, Spanish, Tagalog, Punjabi, and Chinese, therefore having materials available in additional languages directly provides a more inclusive legal process for street vendors.
  2. Reduce permit costs. As described in this report, fees and associated costs are high and create an undue burden on low-income entrepreneurs seeking to start their own businesses. For many, the costs alone outright ban them from obtaining permits. The fees can be adjusted to the type of vending (i.e., sidewalk cart vending versus food truck vending) with available reductions and waivers for low-income vendors.
  3. Modify equipment requirements that are not compatible with sidewalk vending operations. Some requirements that apply to brick-and-mortar restaurants and food trucks are merely unreasonable for sidewalk vendors to comply with. Equipment barriers, such as the sink requirements in many counties, make it physically impossible and/or drastically increase expenses of constructing a compliant vending cart. An alternative solution to maintaining public health and safety would be to have neighborhood sinks (i.e., at city parks and fire stations) where street vendors can have access for use.
  4. Remove criminal misdemeanor penalties. The CRFC's criminal penalties perpetuate an endless cycle of criminalization and exclusion. Instead of being charged with a misdemeanor for engaging in work, there should be a non-criminal education program that trains in understanding the compliance requirements and helps in obtaining proper permits and licenses (i.e., vendors will get subsidized or free permits for completing the program).

To legislators, enforcement agents and agencies, and the community:

As a proud daughter of a street vendor, I plead that you listen and implement solutions. California has seen recent progressive changes towards a more inclusive economy (i.e., the legalization of street vending), but truly listen to the united outcry of street vendors. They want to participate in the workforce without being subjected to unreasonable prerequisite financial costs, unaccommodating code-compliant equipment standards that are detrimental to physical health, and without being seen as “outlaws.” They demand accessibility to be entrepreneurs and breadwinners without having their dignities violated or compromised. Street vendors recognize and understand the holistic concern for public safety and the need for health code requirements, but it should not come at the expense of their safety. Listen to the echoes of the stories told by street vendors. Distinctive from the strategically executed laws and regulations, these demands are reasonable and necessary for ethnic minority workers to engage in the economy, unrestrictedly and safely. Street vending provides freedom- free to be innovators and entrepreneurs in this country- and that should be inclusively available to all.

J.D. Candidate, Class of 2023, at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.