Sitting in a downtown coffee shop, relaxed and casually dressed in civilian clothes, Tucson police Officer Martin Escobar is serious.

Up until less than two weeks ago, Escobar was an obscure 15-year veteran on the TPD patrol beat, working nights on the south side. Married, a father of two, Escobar kept a low profile, dedicating himself to family and work.

But in the wake of the April 23 signing of SB 1070, which forces police officers in Arizona to question suspects' citizenship if they have "reasonable suspicion" that person may be in this country illegally, Escobar emerged as an unlikely hero to the law's opponents - and has been eviscerated by the law's supporters.

Escobar, 45, filed a federal lawsuit - one of the first - against SB 1070, which has ignited a maelstrom over the role of local police in enforcing federal immigration laws. A second police officer in Phoenix also filed a lawsuit.

"I didn't do this for me," said Escobar, who in addition to his police career is a martial-arts champion and owner of a jiu-jitsu studio.

Escobar did it for the Latino residents he has served his whole career who he believes will be racially profiled. He did it for his fellow officers, who he believes will find policing more challenging under the new law. He did it for his Mexican-born parents, legal residents who immigrated to Tucson to build a new, strong life for the family.

"My mom and dad speak with accents. They could be racially profiled," said Escobar, a naturalized citizen.

Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the law that is due to take effect in late July unless blocked, rejects claims that SB 1070 will lead to racial profiling. She and proponents of the law argue local police officers will not be allowed to use racial identity as a reason to question someone under the law.

But Escobar, who grew up in South Tucson, flatly rejects that argument. While the vast majority of officers are good, he said, "there's that 1 percent who will abuse the law."

Moreover, he said, the law will inspire fear within the Latino neighborhoods and make policing more difficult. He fears Latino residents will report fewer crimes and be less willing to emerge as witnesses.

"We have worked hard to achieve a greater level of cooperation," he said. "I'm proud of my police work."

Escobar and his five siblings, one of whom is also a Tucson police officer, were raised by their divorced mother in a small house on West 30th Street.

His mother cleaned motel rooms, made tortillas and worked at Garcia Cleaners and Laundry on East 22nd Street, not far from the Escobar home. The family didn't have much and "I didn't notice it much," he said.

But even as a kid, he noticed racial profiling.

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As a student at Safford Junior High School, Escobar recalls the day he was stopped by Border Patrol agents near his home. They asked him for his immigration papers.

Scared and unsure, he told them truthfully he was in the country legally and that he didn't have immigration papers. "It struck a chord with me," he said.

That chord has played over and over again in Latino neighborhoods where American citizens and legal residents have been asked to prove their legal status, Escobar said. That happens now, without SB 1070, he said. It will only increase if the law takes effect.

While he wasn't looking for public attention, Escobar is confident he did the right thing in contesting a law he believes will interfere with his work as a cop on the beat.

"There was a great cause and it's not about me," he said. "I just want people to stand up when something is wrong."

Ernesto Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at 573-4187 or