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Immigrant street vendors in Los Angeles want to legalize their businesses

Street food vending in Los Angeles County is illegal.

But thousands of Latino and immigrant vendors who scrape by to earn a living say they should be allowed to physically have food carts on city sidewalks selling food. Even if they can afford the health permit fees, and undergo inspections, they still can't sell most prepared food items under current law.

Marina Hernandez is originally from Mexico but has worked as a street vendor in Highland Park the last seven years. She sells paletas, or popsicles, roasted corn, and chicharrones, or fried pork skin.

Hernandez has gotten warnings and a couple of tickets from police over the years. It was enough to convince her to give up street vending and take a job caring for an elderly woman in her neighborhood. But that earned her less than $40 for an eight-hour shift.

“I got so depressed with my wages that I said, ‘No more… I’m leaving,’" said Hernandez. "So I quit. Because it’s really important for me to have a flexible schedule, to earn a little more, and focus on going back to school.”

Hernandez is now back to street vending – and back to earning $60 to $80 a day. She has also decided to join other vendors in L.A. County in a budding effort to make it easier for get “legal” - to pressure local officials so they can sell food on LA streets.

Los Angeles County’s Street Vending Compliance Program does require some better equipped mobile food facilities--not on sidewalks--to pay fees and get public health permits. Ten inspectors investigate potential complaints about vendors who sell food from grills, carts and stands.

At a town hall meeting held Wednesday night inside a low-income housing development in Highland Park, street vendors broke up into small groups to talk about their demands and learn their rights.

Isela Gracian is an organizer with the East L.A. Community Corporation in Boyle Heights. She has worked with street vendors there for the past three years.

“Policies shouldn’t just be made at City Hall," said Gracian. "We should be engaging the residents that are most affected by these policies in how to develop that. So we know that we want it citywide; we know that we want it to be a process that’s easy to implement and easy to access - but the specific details, we really want that to come out of the town halls.”

Gracian says these meetings are still early in the process.

Gracian plans to bring immigrant vendors from MacArthur Park, Highland Park and South L.A. nto a broad effort to rewrite the regulations that keep them getting “legal.”