Outside bars late Friday night in Hollywood, surrounding the USC tailgates on game days at the Coliseum, and lining streets in Boyle Heights, food cart vendors sprawl across Los Angeles’s sunburnt landscape. Even as the city ascends as one of the country’s great culinary hotspots, these humble merchants peddling pupusas, mangos with chili pepper and bacon-wrapped hot dogs remain an indelible fixture of LA’s food world.
“Los Angeles has fine dining, it does fast casual well, it has its avocado toast and grain bowls, but it’s a street food city through and through,” says Farley Elliott, author of the book Los Angeles Street Food: A History of Tamaleros to Taco Trucks.
Yet, these estimated 50,000 vendors in the city break the law every time they set up shop. Though enforcement is inconsistent, cops can confiscate their equipment, issue citations and even arrest them. For years, activists have tried to change the law so these people’s livelihoods—an important part of LA’s culture—could become legal. With debate of the issue stalled out, the election of Donald Trump and his immigration hardliners made consequences of inaction on legalizing food vendors even more stark: Selling food to fellow Angelenos could get people deported.
Politicians in the country’s blue cities, districts and states have made a lot of noise about resisting Trump’s agenda. Now it’s time for them to show if they’re willing to back those words with action. Would they actually adjust laws to implement roadblocks to Trump? In Los Angeles, the city’s first opportunity to resist would test whether its officials could resolve a years-old food fight in order to protect the city’s immigrants.
For more than a century, Los Angeles has been thick with street vendors. “In the 1870s travelers used to come to LA and comment about how all the restaurants are outdoors because they saw so many tamale guys they thought those were the only places to eat in town,” Elliott says.
As the years have passed, more people from Latin America and Asia immigrated to Southern California bringing their culinary traditions with them. “LA is the second-largest Mexican city in the world and has the second-most Thai immigrants of any city,” Elliott says. “There are a ton of cultures in Los Angeles that have a backbone of street food in their own native countries and so they’re bringing a lot of that expertise.”
That was Raul Ortega’s goal when he opened Mariscos Jalisco, a seafood-focused Mexican food truck based in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. “I wanted to make the food of my hometown, San de los Lagos, Jalisco in Mexico. Our first intention was to serve the people who knew our flavors,” Ortega says. “People bring the flavors of their hometowns–that you can’t necessarily get in restaurants–and that’s what makes LA a mega food city.”
Even more important for these people cooking, it costs very little money to start working and providing for their families. Additionally, the carts account for $504 million in economic activity each year, according to an Economic Roundtable report. But unlike cities like New York or Seattle, these carts aren’t legal and enforcement is capricious. A group of Los Angeles councilmembers have been trying to change that.
Back in 2013, LA city councilmembers Jose Huizar and Curren Price introduced a measure that would begin the process of decriminalizing street vendors. It proceeded to get stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits that is city government. It slogged back and forth between committees, had advocacy groups debating both sides and generally stalled out. If street food is so culturally important and omnipresent in LA, why were people fighting Huizar and Price? Two of the prevailing arguments against the vendors have been the traffic congestion they can cause and their effect on surrounding brick-and-mortar businesses.
“There are vendors who will collectivize and take over entire parts of the neighborhood and that’s when locals start to complain,” Elliott says. “In Boyle Heights, a group of food vendors eventually became so popular that people pulling off to the side of the road to eat and clogging traffic so much that it became unworkable from a city safety standpoint. So, the city had to go and shut it down.” And then business groups have long resisted letting vendors sell in Downtown LA and other locales because, “there are some older mom-and-pops that have been in the area for years that do directly compete with some of the smaller food cart vendors,” Blair Besten of the Historic Core Business Improvement District told NPR affiliate KPCC in 2014. “It’s really difficult to tell my business owners that have invested $30,000 to upgrade their hood systems to comply with the fire department, the health department and building and safety to compete selling the same product that someone is grilling outside.”
If street food is so culturally important and omnipresent in LA, why were people fighting Huizar and Price?
Elliott argues that the effect won’t be as detrimental as anti-food vendor advocates argue, because carts aren’t necessarily in direct competition with brick-and-mortar restaurants. “I’m a firm believer in the idea that rising tides raise all boats, a thriving food scene will attract more people,” he says. “For the most part people are operating at different levels. I go to the truck because I want a taco truck experience. I’m eating at a restaurant, because I want a restaurant experience. Eating at one does exclude me from the other. They’re feeding different clientele who want different things at different times.”
Besten and his constituents have largely been winning the argument on food carts by keeping the status quo, leaving Huizar, Price and street vendor advocates from passing anything through city hall. So, food street vendors remained susceptible to occasional raids, fines and confiscations, though they generally didn’t have to worry about the Obama administration requesting the LAPD hand over undocumented immigrants with such a minor infraction. But a sanctuary city wouldn’t do that anyway, right?
While there’s no prescribed definition of a “sanctuary city” it pretty much means that a locale has informal policies or actual laws on the books saying they will not assist federal immigration efforts. Despite widespread belief that Los Angeles is a sanctuary city, it still skates a fine line. While it takes steps to not enforce immigration law, it also doesn’t refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement entirely.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, apparently worried about the loss of federal funding for the city if LA catches the wrath of Trump, has waffled on outright declaring the City of Angels a sanctuary city. But he signed the law that decriminalized street vending and on February 23 and sent a letter to ICE, telling its officers to stop identifying themselves as police.
Yeah, Obama wouldn’t expect LA to hand over those food vendors. But Trump has changed everything.
In his letter Garcetti wrote, “In Los Angeles, the term ‘police’ is synonymous with the Los Angeles Police Department, so for ICE agents to represent themselves as police misleads the public into believing they are interacting with LAPD. This is especially corrosive given that to advance public safety, LAPD does not initiate police action with the objective of determining a person’s immigration status.”
That LAPD policy Garcetti references goes back to 1979, when Police Chief Daryl Gates enacted Special Order 40. It established that a cop in LA isn’t supposed to just walk up to you and ask for you to prove your citizenship and then detain you for deportation proceedings if you don’t have documentation.
Current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has forcefully proclaimed he will uphold that order in the wake of Trump’s election. It’s the position of his department that in a city where Beck estimates there are 500,000 undocumented immigrants, it’s hard to conduct good police work when even victims and witnesses of crimes are afraid to step forward for fear of deportation. The LAPD would rather have those people feel free to cooperate with police as a matter of public safety. Whereas if the LAPD essentially deputized themselves as ICE agents, they’d be checking immigration status and scaring potential witnesses off.
This is where the distinction on how you define sanctuary city matters. The strictest adherents would be openly uncooperative with federal officials, while a city like LA has essentially said it won’t go out of the way to help the feds. Because, if you’re processed for committing a crime, Special Order 40 still permits an officer to check your immigration status and that could set you up for deportation if you’re undocumented. Yeah, Obama wouldn’t expect LA to hand over those food vendors. But Trump has changed everything.
Trump anchored his campaign with anti-immigrant rhetoric, disparaging Muslims and Latinos while calling for their ouster from the country. It struck a nerve. “I really don’t get his ideas. He woke up all the racism that was hiding. Now you see people being racist against others and it’s bad for America,” Ortega says.
Despite Trump’s stark pronouncements on the hustings, it seemed unthinkable he’d actually follow through with such draconian policies to deport all the “bad hombres” he said populated America. But his administration didn’t wait long after entering office to stake out their position. In a January 25 executive order, Trump outlined a sweeping immigration crackdown, which included cutting off funding to sanctuary jurisdictions that didn’t assist with the federal government’s deportation efforts. It also proclaimed that those who, “Have been charged with any criminal offense, where such charge has not been resolved or have committed acts that constitute a chargeable criminal offense,” will be subject to deportation.
Since then, stories abounded about ICE aggressively tracking undocumented immigrants. Agents have staked out homeless shelters, rounding up people as they exit. And a domestic abuse victim was taken while she obtained a restraining order against her alleged abuser.
If LA left something so endemic to its culture illegal, like street vending, it could leave many undocumented immigrants subject to deportation who wouldn’t have been at risk otherwise. “If someone is selling popsicles outside and all of a sudden they’re a criminal? And they can get deported? That doesn’t make sense,” Ortega says.
The Council and mayor needed to make changes in order to back up their promises to protect the city’s undocumented immigrants.
A few weeks after Trump’s election, Price and fellow councilmember Joe Buscaino wrote a letter to the LA City Council, arguing that there was new urgency to legalizing street vending.
“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. Continuing to impose criminal misdemeanor penalties for vending disproportionately affects, and unfairly punishes, undocumented immigrants, and could potentially put them at risk for deportation. We believe the Council has a moral imperative to decriminalize vending by removing all misdemeanor penalties.”
The appeal worked. A long-stalled measure began to gain traction, passing out of committee in December and then winning by unanimous vote in the council in February, with Garcetti supporting it. The election of Trump had sharpened the council’s focus and caused them to deal with a problem they’d long let fester with endless talking.
This measure passing is just the first step. It has decriminalized street vending so that the city’s courts wouldn’t be processing current vendors. The council still needs to build an infrastructure to make vending fully legal with rules and permitting procedures. And while Garcetti has yet to declare LA a sanctuary city, with each passing Trump administration action, he digs in his heels a little bit more.
“Protecting our homeland means focusing on criminals who pose a threat to our safety and security—not turning local police into a deportation force or creating widespread fear by targeting hardworking immigrants who contribute so much to our economy, culture, and spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood,” the mayor wrote in a recent statement on Trump’s new DHS immigration guidelines.
“I hope they keep doing what they can. This first step was a good move from our leaders here because Trump’s policies are not healthy for the economy and our people,” Ortega says. “Trump just wants to rip people and families apart, but immigrants are very strong and they helped make America so great in the first place.”
Jeremy Repanich is a contributing editor at Playboy. Follow him on Twitter @racefortheprize