In the streets of Anaheim you can find them – immigrant vendors – trying to make a living by grilling up carne asada and selling tacos under an umbrella to hungry pedestrians. 

Throughout Anaheim, vendors are frequently seen set up at night on sidewalks as people line up to buy food.

During the day, some vendors push their carts through neighborhoods or set up in parks, selling various flavors of shaved ice, known as raspados. Others sell fried wheat snacks, in the shape of cartwheels, doused in a mixture of lime juice and hot sauce – known as chicharrones de harina.  

But city officials seem to be mostly concerned by larger setups typically used by taqueros or taco vendors, saying some of those vendors are part of a network exploiting immigrant labor and involving human trafficking – one that includes lookouts that watch and follow code enforcement trucks when they leave city hall.

“Large street vending setups generate $7,000 to $10,000 a night. Paying vulnerable workers illegally low wages increases profits for those behind these setups,” said city spokesperson Mike Lyster in an emailed response to questions last Wednesday

At the same time, city officials like Councilman Jose Moreno say local brick and mortar small business owners – some who got their start selling food on the street – see these vendors as competition who set up right in front of their restaurants.

So now city officials are looking to intervene.

Recently, Anaheim city council members voted unanimously to approve a $375,000 increase of their general fund to be used to hire additional staff to support proactive enforcement efforts in the city’s commercial corridors.

The additional enforcement will in part apply to street vendors.

Councilman Trevor O’Neil said at the July 19 meeting that he, along with Councilman Jose Diaz, have for the last year been trying to develop a better partnership with the county to address issues with illegal street vendors.

“So we don’t have illegal food street vendors who are not licensed by county health departments that aren’t practicing the proper sanitation standards, and then aren’t using our storm drains to dump the grease in,” O’Neil said about why he has made efforts to collaborate more with the county.

He also said the city is working on educational materials to help the vendors operate legally.

The city offers street vendor permitting and free business coaching through the Emprendedor@s Program, Lyster wrote.

This year so far, city officials issued 83 citations and made 76 confiscations of equipment. Three of the citations resulted in fines of a combined $750, according to Lyster.

“That is out of 382 locations checked during that time,” he said.

Lyster said street vending happens all over town – but the most common locations are focused around the northeast end of the city, near or around the 91 Freeway, as well around West Anaheim. 

“We welcome street vending done right and support entrepreneurship,” Lyster wrote, “Unfortunately, much of the street vending we encounter is done wrong.”

When not done right, Lyster said, street vending can have “a negative impact on small-business restaurants that play by the rules” – and on the environment “with cooking grease dumped into storm drains and on pedestrians who have to walk in the street around vendors blocking sidewalks.”

Moreno is asking how his city can find a balance between protecting and supporting the food vendors while simultaneously doing the same for small businesses in Anaheim.

He asked at the July 12 city council meeting to meet with staff to address complaints from business owners about street vendors setting up in front of “taquerias” or taco shops and discussed the possibility of bringing an agenda item regarding the issue in the future.

Moreno also said street vendors are a critical part of Anaheim’s economy and that he wants to support them.

“Folks are being entrepreneurial. They’re trying to provide for their families and frankly often become a community kind of neighborhood gathering place,” Moreno said. “To me, that’s the assets that come to a city with a healthy street vendor culture.”

But he also notes that some of the small business owners started off as street vendors themselves working hard to earn enough money to start their own business. 

“Ironically, those very same entrepreneurs who were street vendors, and are now in a brick and mortar, now have street vendors, some of them, setting up shop right in front of their business, which then takes away business and threatens their business overall,” Moreno said.

These businesses, he says, have to pay rent and utilities and have a business license and at the same time create local jobs.

Moreno also recognized that street vendors have frequently been targeted.

“Oftentimes, they are at risk of being robbed, or being beaten, and in places where there may be prejudice and or vultures to take their money,” Moreno said.

At the July 12 meeting Moreno also expressed concerns of exploitation.

“I’m learning that some of the street vendors are not actually just folks who are really struggling, they’re part of a larger system of economic exploitation that might be being sent into our city from other areas of California,” he said.

Moreno elaborated on those comments in a phone interview last week claiming that he has increasingly heard some street vendors are part of networks run by individuals who get most of the profits and said he wants the city to look into that.

“It’s almost one could argue the gentrification of the street vendor economy,” he said.

“We want to make sure those folks that are working under those conditions certainly aren’t getting exploited.”

Lyster also noted the street vendor networks in the city.

“In terms of organizational scale, larger street vending operations are often one of several under the same operation. We encounter what appears to be a handful of large operators controlling street vendors that seem to respect each other’s territory,” he said.

Lyster also said these networks involve the “exploitation of immigrant labor.”

“What we consistently hear is that those working are immigrants who were brought here by their ‘coyotes,’ human traffickers who bring people across the border for a fee,” he wrote. “They are working at street vending to pay off debts for being brought across the border.”

Lyster said the information they have is based off of interviews with street vendors they have dealt with and added that some of them work for $2 an hour or 50 cents per taco they sell.

In California, the hourly minimum wage is $14 per hour for employers with 25 employees or less, according to the state’s department of industrial relations.

“When asked why they work at such wages, they tell us they do so because they are paying off debts. They say they fear retribution against themselves or their families in Mexico, saying the coyotes know their home villages and their family members,” Lyster wrote.

“We also encounter pushcart vendors, and many of those have shared that they are also paying off debts to coyotes.”

Brandon Pho contributed to the reporting in this article.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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