Back in the mid-eighties, as a young correspondent working out of Los Angeles, I went on a night patrol with US border guards charged with stopping Mexicans illegally entering the United States.
It was harrowing for all parties: agents struggling with the enormity and futility of their task; Mexicans desperate to breach the barrier that separated them from work and income; observers like me, who could see first-hand how senseless and dispiriting this nightly drama had become.
“I have three hungry children to feed and I have got to get across the border,” one of them, who introduced himself as Manuel, told me through the wire fence that night south of San Diego in September, 1986. “This is no game, Señor.”
Back then the US was happy to publicise ‘the problem’, so it was easy to hitch a ride with guards who, in turn, were surprisingly forthcoming about the hopelessness of it all.
“Some nights you can see the same guy three or four times during a shift,” border patrol agent, James K Smith, told me then. “When you don’t see him a fourth time, you know he’s made it.”
That was then, this is now. Last week, more than three decades on from that harrowing night, I went back to the US-Mexico border and found that no one wanted to talk about ‘the solution’ – Donald Trump’s wall.
“That’s top-secret stuff over there,” a San Diego policeman told The New Daily as he gestured towards a zone that had suddenly and without explanation been fenced off from prying eyes.
In the distance, great clouds of dust billowed into the sky between the hastily erected new barriers and the border fence that has long separated the two nations.
Why the sudden secrecy? Why were we barred from entering? Because after months of bluster and brouhaha the first blocks of Donald Trump’s wall were taking shape.
And, bizarrely, but not totally unexpectedly, the President who built his fortune on construction and beauty pageants has turned the wall’s construction into … a beauty pageant.
Less than two weeks ago, six private companies vying for the contract to build the wall – if Mr Trump can get the financing through Congress – began building eight prototypes of what it might look like.
The construction site is close to the Otay Mesa Port of Entry, just along from the biggest crossing on the border at Tijuana.
When The New Daily visited, cars entering Mexico from the US barely had to stop; meanwhile, those attempting to enter the US from the Mexican side had to endure monstrous traffic jams.
Just hundreds of metres away the prototypes of Mr Trump’s wall were taking shape. Local San Diego media reported that four of them will be made of concrete while the other four will be made of other materials. They’ll all be between six and 10 metres high and 10 metres long.
They have 30 days to complete their work and then Mr Trump will pick the one he likes best. The company or companies chosen will win the contract to build the wall, expected to earn them millions and cost taxpayers billions (although Mr Trump continues to claim Mexico will pay for the wall, one way or another).
Despite the secrecy and security, images of the prototypes began emerging this week. There’s nothing remotely attractive or surprising about them – they look like large chunks of concrete.
Fears of mass protests have proved groundless. Which meant the small army of police and border guards around the site have been left to pretty much twiddle their thumbs.
Why no anger?
Alliance San Diego spokesman, Hiram Soto, told The San Diego Union-Tribune it wasn’t apathy but simple political reality.
His organisation and others were not protesting because the wall was “political theatre” that had no chance of ever being fully built because of US Congressional opposition and a lack of funding.
Which would probably be a blessing to all.
For, as the LA Times recently reported, despite Mr Trump’s election campaign rhetoric there aren’t that many Mexicans illegally heading across the border these days: in 2016 it was less than 200,000; in the year 2000 it was almost ten times that (1.8 million).
In the same time, apprehensions by border guards have gone from about 1.6 million to about 400,000.
“The fact is, unauthorised Mexican migration to the US has fallen to levels not seen since the early 1970s,” Wayne Cornelius, a semiretired UC San Diego professor who was co-founder of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, told LA Times columnist Steve Lopez.
Those within the Trump administration advocating the wall were “like the proverbial generals who are always fighting the last war,” Mr Cornelius said. “They’re determined to solve a problem that no longer exists, or at least not as it did in the 1970s to 1990s.”
Elsewhere though, there are protests, albeit silent ones.
At Tecate, another border crossing east of Otay Mesa, French artist JR has erected an installation showing a one-year-old Mexican boy peering from his side of the border into the US.
It speaks more eloquently to the issue of US-Mexican relations than anything Mr Trump has said so far. And, unlike his wall, there’s a beauty about it too.
“People will always migrate,” he told The New York Times. “When we built walls, people built tunnels. When we closed places, they went by the water. The history of humanity is the story of people migrating. Of course, that has to be regulated….(but) for this little kid, there are no walls and borders.”
Sometimes I wonder what became of Manuel, the Mexican trying to cross the border all those years ago; I sometimes wonder what became of border agent Smith too. I hope life was kind to both of them.
Whatever fate befell them, I’m guessing neither would look at the wall taking shape here and think it a good thing. But try telling that to Donald Trump.