Warmer than I.C.E.
Mario remembers the moment he was arrested by an immigration officer posing as state police. He was in jail for 23 days without knowing what would happen to him, a $20,000 bond weighing on him heavily. Until it was paid by the Immigrant Bail Fund, and Mario learned he would be fighting his immigration case from outside a cell, instead of within one.
Thursday night, musicians and comedians came together to support Mario—and dozens of immigrants like him—at “Comic Relief,” a four-act interfaith comedy fundraiser benefitting the Immigrant Bail Fund. Hosted by Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, the evening’s program was centered around standup routines from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim performers. The event ultimately raised $25,422 for the fund.
“Comic Relief” began with What’s On Tap, a New Haven based a cappella group. The singers had been slated to close out the show, but instead provided an overture of sorts for the comedians—still racing in off a late Amtrak train.
As the audience waited for the main acts, the group sung songs of ice and fire. Vocalist Wes Wright followed Alex Forte’s solo (“Cold as Ice,” by Foreigner) with some Johnny Cash, mournfully explaining how “love is a burning thing.” The ensemble belted out “Ring of Fire’s” bass line. Repeating “do-do-do” sounds cut between the pauses in a steady stream of “chet-chet-chets.” The two-step rhythm confidently cribbed Cash’s guitar strumming.
Forte seemingly admonished everyone and no one, singing “You’re digging for gold, you’re throwing away a future. One day, you’ll pay!” against a refrain that handily cited the acronym for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. Cash’s fire thawed us out. Melissa Czajkowski offered up an apposite Adele ballad.
“Time’s against us. Miles between us,” she sung. “I’ll put my hands up. I’ll be better to you! I'll be waiting for you when you're ready to love me again.”
Ana María Rivera-Forastieri, a member of the Bail Fund’s steering committee, followed What’s on Tap. She was joined by Mario, a Guatemalan immigrant active in Meriden social justice groups who first came to the U.S. in 2008.
“He fell victim to the deportation machine shortly after the current administration entered office,” Rivera-Forastieri explained, introducing the show’s main theme. She translated for Mario, who told his story in Spanish that he might express himself more fully.
In June of this year, Mario received an early morning call from his girlfriend, who had been detained driving his car to work. She asked him to stop by to pick up the vehicle before it went into impoundment.
When he arrived, an officer who first identified himself as a policeman began to question Mario if he had documents to be in the United States.
When Mario replied truthfully that he had only a valid driver’s license, the officer declared that he was an immigration agent. He arrested Mario, processed him in Hartford, and had him transferred to a Massachusetts prison.
“You never know who is going to be next,” he said. “I didn’t ever think this was going to happen to me.”
Rivera-Forastieri and Mario yielded the stage to Rev. Paul Fleck of Hamden Plains United Methodist Church. Rev. Fleck had good news and bad: One of the evening’s comedians, Rev. Susan Sparks had come down with laryngitis. But he had jokes to tide the crowd over.
He launched into his first. A Catholic priest, a Baptist preacher, and a rabbi agreed to each minister to a bear in the woods in order to determine who had the finest sacraments.
“No, really!” Rev. Fleck insisted honestly, as the crowd tittered at the setup. “Really!”
The Catholic reports in, all scratched up, his arm in a sling. The bear didn’t entirely appreciate his catechism.
“That’s when I pulled out my holy water and splashed him and he became as gentle as a lamb,” the priest crowed. The priest announced sunnily that the local bishop would offer the bear communion that following week.
The Baptist was much worse for wear, arriving in a wheelchair. “We don’t sprinkle, you see.” Baptists go in for full-body immersion. He tumbled and wrestled with his bear, but when he finally plunged the bear into a river, this bear too became as gentle as a lamb.
The rabbi looked like hell. He was in a full body cast, prone in a hospital bed.
“Well,” sighed the rabbi. “Maybe I shouldn’t have started out with circumcision!”
Rev. Fleck bowed out gracefully, welcoming the professionals: Rabbi Robert Alper and Gibran Saleem. Alper offered the crowd a series of rapid-fire punchlines, back-to-back. Much of his routine lingered on the problems of growing old.
“We have an adorable 55 year-old, and a button 41 year-old.” “What’s casual sex? Is that without a tie?” “In our family, we follow the Jewish tradition. So, we named our son after his grandfather. We called him ‘Grandpa.’”
Saleem, a younger, Brooklyn-based artist—raised in Virginia to Pakistani immigrants—entertained the crowd in a more elaborative, narrative style. Oftentimes, the details of his setups were as hilarious as their conclusions.
In particular, Saleem related some hijinks with his grade-school friend Tanner. Tanner and Saleem had been disciplined for “peeing” upon one another: soaking themselves with Capri Sun pouches, mounted so that the straws emerged through the flies of their pants.
Over the crowd’s laughter, Saleem pressed on. By some miraculous coincidence, when requested by the school’s principal to explain why they did this, Tanner and Saleem both said: “Because we were thirsty!”
He also offered a bevy of more concise jokes. “Have you ever seen a little brown kid play ‘Operation,’” Saleem asked. “No—you haven’t. It’s not a game: it’s an internship.”
“When I meet someone, they only hear what they’re expecting. ‘Hi, my name’s Gibran!’ ‘Oh, hi, Mohammad!’ ‘—wow! That’s my middle name! You—wow, you must be psychic!’”
“If you don’t ‘see’ race, you have four senses that are heightened to race. ‘You don’t look Indian, but you do smell Arab!’”
He often brought the audience to tears through hyperbole and his own screwball reactions to excesses in contemporary, millennial life.
For example, walking around Brooklyn, Saleem had recently encountered a white guy with dreads all bound up in a Sikh turban. The man was wearing a kimono that revealed a tattoo printed in Arabic and it spelled “Chinese.”
When Saleem asked him “Who are you?” The man answered: “El futuro.”
Saleem closed out his set with a case of best intentions gone wrong. He recounted the story of how he’d arrived at a four-way stop sign in California with a black dude coming one way, a white dude coming in another, and a Hispanic dude in a third.
“None of us moved—for three or four days,” Saleem said. “We were so supportive! We all wanted one another to go first!”
After much high-minded altruism, they concluded that they should drive forward altogether at once.
“You’ll never believe what happened,” Saleem paused. “We got hit by an Asian lady! We were all united and going in the same direction!”
He grinned. “To the hospital!”
To listen to an episode of WNHH Radio's "Chai Haven" with Rabbi Herbert Brockman and Immigrant Bail Fund member Brett Davidson, click on or download the audio above.