McALLEN — In a little less than five months, 13,000 census takers will descend on the Rio Grande Valley to ask residents a series of personal, but innocuous questions.

On Monday, local political leaders, community activists and U.S. Census Bureau representatives met in an open forum to discuss the importance of receiving the answers to those questions and how to best encourage Valley residents to take part in the census.

U.S. Census Bureau Associate Director for Field Operations Tim Olson was the forum’s keynote speaker.

“The 2020 census is one of the most important things each of us will do in the 2020 decade,” Olson said.

According to Olson, the census will determine how locals are represented in the U.S. Congress and Electoral College representation.

The census also plays a role in determining how government funds are apportioned and helps communities and companies determine where to build businesses and public buildings.

Olson said the format of the census is geared to make it usable for Valley residents.

“Here in the Valley we will mail invitations to participate to people that live in the cities and towns, and in the rural areas of this Valley we will hand-deliver questionnaire packages, particularly in the colonias, where the mailing addresses really don’t jibe well with the census process,” he said. “The way that you respond in 2020 is so easy. They can either go online, they can go over the phone or they can fill out the paper form that we have done since 1790. In the Valley, the form is going to be in English and Spanish. It’s going to be a bilingual form, so whatever language someone’s most comfortable in, they can respond in.”

Olson addressed concerns over the census, specifically those prompted by the proposal to include a citizenship question, which the Supreme Court ruled against this summer.

“It is safe and it is confidential. By law and by oath, the Census Bureau cannot and will not share any personal information from individuals with any other entity, law enforcement, immigration, any other entity that would like to have that data for various reasons, we cannot share that,” he said. “In fact, if I were to divulge this personal, confidential information, my oath says if I divulge that I face up to five years in prison and up to a quarter of a million dollar fine, and every other census employee takes the same oath.”

To combat the stigma against the census, Olson says the bureau is counting on local leaders, including teachers and priests, to encourage residents to take part in the census.

UTRGV Vice President for Governmental and Community Relations Veronica Gonzales, who also took part in the forum, emphasized the importance of choosing the right spokespeople for the census in order to avoid undercounting she says has previously occurred.

“I think people trust the messenger, right?” she said. “So I think you’ve got to get the right messengers giving the message.”