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Vestal: ‘Citizen’ and ‘illegal’ are nuanced concepts


Is Guillermo Guzman a good teacher and contributing member of his community?

Or is he merely illegal?

Is he the “hardest-working teacher” in his district, as a fellow Lake Roosevelt High School teacher says? Someone who elevated his school’s professionalism and standards, as his superintendent says? A “good example of the American dream,” as a Grand Coulee doctor says? An “individual of outstanding character,” as his pastor says?

Or merely illegal?

Guzman sits in a federal immigration jail in Tacoma, awaiting the outcome of a criminal case alleging that he used a relative’s Social Security number to live in the United States. Police say he admitted this, but his attorney says Guzman is here legally and that the case arises from a “misunderstanding” over two people with the same name.

But whatever happens with his legal case, Guzman’s excellent record as a teacher, counselor and member of the community stands in vivid contrast to the allegations against him. How much should what he’s doing now mitigate what he may have done then?

“It’s not a black and white deal,” said Dennis Carlson, superintendent of the Grand Coulee Dam School District.

Guzman was arrested April 4 in his Lake Roosevelt High School classroom, where he teaches Spanish and leads a Spanish club. He is charged with identity theft and fraud. Those are charges in state court; he also faces possible federal charges, said his attorney, Matthew Cunanan, of Seattle.

The case arose after a relative of Guzman’s with a similar name was denied Social Security benefits after his name turned up as an employee at the Grand Coulee School District. That man told police he believed Guzman, who was born in Mexico, had taken his Social Security number while staying with him briefly in 1995.

Guzman attended the University of Washington, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and earned a teaching certificate. He was hired at Lake Roosevelt High in 2008. He regularly sends money home to his parents in Mexico; his brother showed documentation suggesting Guzman was approved for a work visa, according to the local newspaper, The Star.

“He’s a pretty upstanding citizen,” said Cunanan.

Which is what you would expect his attorney to say. But people in the community are saying essentially the same things – only more forcefully – in letters to the judge.

“Mr. Guzman is quite simply the hardest-working teacher in our district,” wrote Lake Roosevelt science teacher Derrick Johnson. “I have never seen a teacher put in so many hours for the benefit of his students. It is common to see him working through lunch and helping students to catch up. If one visits the school on Saturday or Sunday, it is a good bet that you will find him there. If there are requests for teaching ideas, he is a persistent contributor and collaborator. Mr. Guzman epitomizes what a teacher should be: collegial, committed and caring.”

His pastor, the Rev. Kevin Lind, wrote: “I would like to express my support for Mr. Guillermo Guzman as an individual of outstanding character who has made many positive contributions to our community for several years …  . Mr. Guzman and I share a heart for the young people of our community. He makes positive contributions in teenagers’ lives each and every day in many ways. Our community would surely be at a loss without him.”

The publisher and editor of The Star wrote: “Guzman realized his dream of becoming an educator through hard work, intelligence and incredible energy. He lives very simply so that he can send money to his mother in Mexico, and while he is in jail pesters his brother to not forget to send her money.”

The details of what Guzman did or did not do years ago remain to be brought forth and argued in court. But everything he has done since then will make it extraordinarily hard to answer the most basic of questions associated with his case: What is a citizen? What is justice?

“I’m a product of immigrants,” said Carlson, the superintendent. “My family came from Sweden.  … the story I’ve been told my entire life is hard work, education – exactly what (Guzman) is doing – can lead to success.

“I can really empathize with what he’s doing and what he’s going through. This is not a black and white deal. There sure are black and white issues the courts will have to decide, but in human terms, it’s not a black and white story.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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