Standing on a gentle bluff above the Mississippi River, once a major thoroughfare for immigrants moving north and west, President Carter today made an emotional appeal for the Southeast Asian Boat people.

"Let me remind you that the United States is a country of immigrants. We are a country of refugees," the president told more than 2,000 at a town meeting here.

"The refugees who are now leaving Southeast Asia were our allies in the recent Vietnam war. They are leaving a country that had taken away their basic rights. They believe in individual worth, individual initiative and personal freedom. They're more philosophically attuned to us than the communist regime that has taken over."

Later, Carter used the occasion to let American farmers know they will be allocated enough diesel fuel for harvesting and to announce his support for steps to promote gasohol, an alcohol-gasoline mixture that can be made with Iowa corn, among other things.

His statements on the boat people came in response to a question from a student who suggested that the refugees are costing Americans jobs.

Only 220,000 boat people, or about one for every 1,000 Americans, have come to this country, Carter replied, adding, "I believe that 1,000 Americans can support for just a few weeks one refugee searching for freedom, particularly when these people have proven already that they are eager to learn our language. They are eager to be self-supporting.

"So I hope that all Americans will realize that your families came to this country years ago looking for exactly the same thing that the Vietnam refugees are looking for now."

Carter has sopken about the boat people before, but not with such emotion or evangelical fervor. It was one of 15 subjects, ranging from nuclear power to his daughter's violin lessons (she still plays poorly, he admitted), that Carter touched on at the town meeting while the steamship Delta Queen, on which the president is vacationing, waited

Like most of Carter's previous town meetings, this one also was symbolic.

The Burlington Hawkeye was the first newspaper to endorse his first presidential candidacy, and Carter's showing in Iowa's precinct caucuses 13 months later gave his campaign its first big boost.

Carter made it clear that he hasn't forgotten. Speaking in front of a 24-by-48-foot American flag, he said Burlington has one of "the finest newspapers and greatest editors in the United States."

The response he received here was the largest and warmest so far in his "working vacation" trip. Crowd estimates ranged from 5,000 to 12,000.

But when one questioner, college student Scott Kelsay, suggested that it would be "appropriate to announce for reelection here today," Carter simply smiled. "That sounds like a wonderful idea," he waid, pausing befor adding, "which I will consider very carefully. I haven't forgotten what Iowa did for me in 1976."

Unlike those at many previous town meetings, the questions here were often pointed and preceptive. One man, for example, asked how Carter could justify bailing out Chrysler from financial trouble.

The president responded that he has recommended that the government underwrite private loans to keep the automaker afloat, providing that Chrysler "reconstitutes its management so it can be more effective and more efficient in the future than it has been in the past."

Chrysler asked for government assistance last month after announcing a second-quarter loss of $207.1 million, the worst in its 54-year history.

Michael Lamb, an unemployed teacher, forced Carter into his strongest defense of the nuclear power industry since the March 28 Three Mile Island accident.

"I think it's inevitable that there is a place for atomic power in our future," the president said.

When Lamb insisted that the president hadn't answered his question What would happen to the nation if a nuclar catastrophy would occur in our breadbasket?), Carter replied: "If we have a catastrophic accident, it would be a catastrophe

The president, speaking in the hot sun with his sports jacket off, announced his support for measures to promote gasohol.

The White House later announced a series of grants and low-interest loans to stimulate the small-scale production of alcohol on farms. The alcohol would be used in producing gasohol. Aides said loans of up to $3 million per project would be provided under a two-year program administered by the Agriculture Department.

Carter later told a questioner that he personally approved a one-time only sale of $47 million worth of fuel oil supplies to Iran, which exports about 3 million barrels of oil a day. The sale, he said, became necessary when a pipeline to an Iranian refinery was sabotaged and serious kerosene shortages developed.

"Iranians use kerosene for every thing," he said.

Gertrude Gerdom asked a more personal question. Had the president caught any fish while on the Delta Queen?

"I think I've done a better job being president than catching fish," Carter replied. Then he added, "Gertrude that is the kind of question I never get from the Washington Press corps. I love you, Gertrude."

Later, Carter went fishing. He returned empty-handed.