Deportation Defense Unit


Managing Attorneys


Lilit Melkonyan

Managing Attorney, Los Angeles x223

Lilit is an Armenian Immigrant. Lilit’s journey to becoming an immigration attorney began, when she enrolled in ESL classes soon after arriving in the U.S. in 2003. Ultimately, Lilit graduated from Glendale University College of Law with High Honors in May 2017. While in law school, Lilit volunteered as a law clerk for the LA County Public Defender’s office. Lilit joined CARECEN’s Deportation Defense Units in March 2018. Her work at CARECEN has primarily focused on representing Unaccompanied Minors in removal proceedings. Beside work, Lilit enjoys spending time with her family, cooking delicious food and swimming.


Ruth Calvillo

Managing Attorney, San Bernardino x161

Ruth was born and raised in Los Angeles to a single, immigrant mother from Guatemala. Her work at CARECEN has focused on the representation of individuals detained by ICE. Prior to working at CARECEN, Ruth worked as a Staff Attorney at The Young Center advocating for the best interest of children in ORR custody. Ruth also previously worked as an attorney for a private law firm where she represented individuals in a variety of immigration matters. Ruth graduated from The University of Tulsa College of Law in 2016 and from Claremont McKenna College with a bachelor's degree in Psychology in 2011. When she is not working, she enjoys discovering new things to do in the Inland Empire with her family.  


Staff Attorneys

Hannah Kazim

Senior Staff Attorney, Los Angeles x148

Hannah was raised in Costa Rica, Peru, and Mexico, and attended UC Santa Barbara before settling in Long Beach in 2010. She taught middle school for four years, receiving a Masters in Special Education from LMU in 2012. She attended Pepperdine School of Law, during which time she interned at various legal organizations (including CARECEN!) that helped her find and narrow down a passion for advocating for kids and families in immigration proceedings. After graduating in 2017, she clerked for two years at the Los Angeles immigration court, before joining the CARECEN DDU. Hannah loves her job, her team, and most of all, her clients. When she’s not fighting for them, you’ll find her searching for the world’s best Reuben sandwich, or hanging with her pandemic pup, Soledad.


Christopher Perez

Staff Attorney, San Bernardino x178

Chris is a Staff Attorney based out of our San Bernardino office. He represents both detained and non-detained clients going through deportation proceedings. Prior to joining CARECEN, Chris was a Law Clerk for the Juvenile Innocence and Fair Sentencing Clinic at Loyola Law School where he represented individuals serving life without parole sentences for crimes committed as juveniles. Chris earned his law degree from Loyola Law School and received his B.A. in Government from Cornell University. Chris is a proud born and raised New Yorker. When Chris is not working for his clients, he is waking up early on weekends to watch the English Premier League and slowly building a vinyl collection.  


Christopher Peterson

Staff Attorney, Los Angeles x212 

Christopher Peterson is a staff attorney at CARECEN and dedicates himself to representing unaccompanied minors in removal proceedings, specializing in humanitarian forms of relief. Additionally, as part of CARECEN’s Deportation Defense Unit, he has taken on adult cases and has volunteered serving migrants in transit at the San Ysidro-Tijuana Border. Prior to joining CARECEN, Christopher dedicated his law school career to advocating for the immigrant community through Loyola’s Immigrant Justice Clinic, which gave him the opportunity to represent immigrants in removal proceedings in El Paso, Texas. Christopher has also engaged in local advocacy efforts with the Urban Peace Institute, where he explored ways to mitigate the immigration consequences caused by the indiscriminate use of gang databases. Christopher’s passion to serve the immigrant community arose from his own personal experience growing up in the diverse community of Los Angeles. In his free time, he enjoys soccer and poetry.


Evelyn Bonilla

Staff Attorney, Los Angeles x067

Evelyn is a Staff Attorney at the Los Angeles office. She started at CARECEN with the Survivors of Violence Unit, working with survivors of violence and now splits her time with the Deportation Defense Unit, representing unaccompanied minors. Evelyn earned her law degree from University of La Verne, where she had the opportunity to intern at the Public Defenders of San Bernardino. While there, she had the opportunity to write motions and be on the defense team for a murder trial. She also interned at CARECEN on the Family based team while she was in law school. Evelyn received her B.A. in Political Science and Anthropology from UCLA. On her free time, Evelyn enjoys spending time with her family especially her nephew, doing 700+ piece puzzles and finding new interesting restaurants.

Maria Zavaleta

Staff Attorney, Los Angeles x063

In 2000, 7-year-old Maria migrated with her mother from El Salvador to the U.S., seeking a better life. A year later, her older half-brother was granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Maria traces her passion for the law to her fight to help her brother retain his legal status after the Trump administration ended the TPS program for immigrants from El Salvador. Maria was a Dean’s Scholarship recipient at the University of San Francisco School of Law. She worked as a summer law clerk for the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office and was a student advocate with the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic. Maria received her B.A. in Criminology, Law and Society and Psychology and Social Behavior at UC Irvine. On her free time, she enjoys hiking and the beach.

Support Staff  


Marcela Quiju

Paralegal, Los Angeles x184


Monica Leon 

Lead Paralegal San Bernardino x202

At the age of two, Monica emigrated from Peru and moved to Southern California with her family. Her personal immigration history inspired a career in public policy and law. At CARECEN, Monica assists detained migrants and children in ORR custody by connecting them to resources in the Inland Empire and the greater Los Angeles area. She also provides CARECEN clients with additional support in their immigration cases and a safe space to express questions and concerns. Monica graduated from Bryn Mawr College in Sociology in 2018. As an undergraduate, she worked with local migrant communities and political leaders in Philadelphia, Spain, China, and Greece to advocate for migrant rights and research the underlying patterns of modern displacement. Monica loves listening to podcasts, traveling, and making many trips to the beach. 


Sandra Lopez Perez

 Paralegal, Los Angeles x181

Sandra immigrated from Totonicapán, Guatemala to Los Angeles, CA at the age of seven. Although a DACA recipient, Sandra knows that a lawful legal status can provide more opportunities. In high school for instance, she was unable to qualify for certain scholarships. During undergrad, she was not eligible for as many loans as her peers which then prompted her into finishing her undergraduate studies in three years instead of the usual four years. While earning her Political Science degree at the University of California, Merced, Sandra learned more about the circumstances in which so many like herself are forced to migrate out of their homelands. Through her own experience and education, Sandra has committed herself to serve and uplift individuals like herself.  Before starting at CARECEN, Sandra tutored her newly arrived immigrant classmates and mentored incoming undocumented freshmen at the University of California, Merced.


Thais Rodriguez

Paralegal, San Bernardino x064 

Thais Rodriguez is one of the DDU Legal Assistant for the San Bernardino office. She recently graduated from the School of Foreign Service (SFS) with a Bachelor's of Science in Foreign Service (BSBF) studying Culture and Politics with a theme in Immigration. After college, she did a pre-law internship program called Sonia & Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program (SCSJIP) where she interned for two Kings County judges in New York and participated in an LSAT boot camp for the summer. Thais recently completed a semester internship with Al Otro Lado (AOL) as AOL’s Lead Attorney’s intern where she worked on humanitarian parole and litigation cases. She grew up in Pomona, California where her love for social justice and politics emerged from student walkouts, protests, and extensive board meetings with the Pomona Council and the PUSD district. At Georgetown, Thais was the Alternative Break Program Kino Border Immersion Co-leader and the Publicity coordinator for Hoya Saxa Weekend. She was also formally a Program Coordinator for the D.C. Schools Project at the Center for Social Justice (CSJ). Thais is mostly focused on the ties between gender, migration, and law through her work with DMV detention centers and migrant justice community efforts in Southern California.  


Tessla Cerrato

Paralegal, Los Angeles x224 

Tessla was born and raised in Los Angeles, CA to Honduran parents. She graduated from Franklin & Marshall College with a BA degree in Government & French in 2016. As an undergraduate, she volunteered and worked to help the community she resided in any way she could; filing IRS tax returns for low-income families, translating immigration related documents with the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC), and working as an intern at the Human Rights League in Paris, France while studying abroad. Because of her family’s background, Tessla is committed to grow professionally within the immigration legal field and to help the Latinx community to the best of her abilities. 


Samantha Pineda 

Data Management Assistant, Los Angeles  Ext. 219  

Samantha was born and raised in the Los Angeles Historic Filipinotown area to refugee parents from El Salvador.  Prior to joining the DDU team at CARECEN-LA, she served as Co-Director/Program Coordinator with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a non-profit grassroots organization founded in 1980 that provides international accompaniment to social movement organizations fighting for social and economic justice in El Salvador. As part of this work, she spent over two years in El Salvador building and sustaining the organizations relationships with movement partners on the ground and learning about the conditions that force Central American people to leave their homelands. Samantha earned her BA in Feminist Studies and Latin American Latino Studies from UC Santa Cruz with a specialization in Central American feminism, youth activism, and social change. During her personal time, she hangs-out with her partner, spends time with family, and plays Animal Crossing. 

Rosa Tovar

Rosa grew up in Los Angeles and is the proud daughter of Salvadoran and Mexican immigrants. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Music from UCLA and a JD from UC Hastings College of the Law. Prior to law school, she worked at Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, where she provided direct services to unaccompanied children and other vulnerable immigrant populations. During law school, Rosa was an immigrant justice intern with Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, helping asylum seekers and families harmed by family separation at the border. She also participated in UC Hastings’ Refugee and Human Rights Clinic, where she worked closely with a Guatemalan human rights lawyer on an expert affidavit to support the asylum claims of Guatemalan women and girls. In her down time, Rosa enjoys playing the piano and guitar, seeing live music, and going on long hikes with her pup, Olive.