In order for the Rio Grande Valley to make the most out of its presence in Austin and Washington, residents first need to make sure they are counted in the 2010 Census.

That is the message from Valley lawmakers and officials who are encouraging the community to fill out and mail their Census forms by April 1. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, along with Texas Secretary of State Hope Andrade, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, held a press conference on March 13 to advocate for the Census.

Leaders are encouraging residents to “make themselves count.” Census forms were sent out en masse to more than 400 million addresses nationwide last week.

“We are one of the fastest growing areas in the State of Texas, and we have the possibility of gaining an additional House seat in the Texas Legislature. This means a greater voice for us, and much more influence in terms of the way money is distributed, which is based on a head count, this is why everybody needs to be counted,” Hinojosa said. “In Texas we have the possibility of getting an additional four Congressional seats to represent us in Washington, so it’s very important.”

The Constitution requires that a national Census take place every 10 years. Information collected helps determine population size, and other factors like median income. In turn, the information determines how more than $400 billion in federal funding is distributed nationwide.

Numbers in Hidalgo County have been historically below the national and statewide participation rate. In the 2000 Census, participation was 72 percent nationally and 67 percent across the state. Hidalgo County’s participation rate in 2000 was 58 percent.

“In 2000, I heard that 393,000 were not counted. The estimated loss was about $1 billion federal dollars that did not come in to Texas because of that,” said Lucio, a member of the state finance committee. “We depend on federal funds to be able to balance the budget and be able to use those funds to address issues such as healthcare, highway infrastructure, public education and economic development.”

The 2010 Census is one of the shortest questionnaires in U.S. history, according to Census officials. Seeking to improve counts in undercounted areas, or “hard to count” communities along the border, the Census is only 10 questions long, and can take as little as 10 minutes to complete, according to Census officials in Texas.

“This what determines representation for us. This is what determines federal funding,” said Andrade, who was also named Texas “Census Ambassador” by Gov. Rick Perry last week. “If Texans do not get counted then Texans will lose. As Texans we must get counted.”