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NEW ORLEANS -- President Donald Trump on Monday sought to rally thousands of farmers behind his push for a border wall, but he offered an exception to his hard-line immigration stance, promising to allow seasonal farmworkers to more easily enter the country.

Trump spent most of his hourlong address at the American Farm Bureau Federation's annual convention defending his decision to shut down the government over the fight for wall funding, railing against the dangers of drugs and illegal migrants.

But speaking to farmers, who have faced a shortage of temporary workers as the economy has strengthened, Trump pledged to pursue changes to immigration laws that would "actually make it easier for them to help the farmers because you need these people."

"A lot of people don't understand this. You need people to help you with the farms. I'm not going to rule that out," Trump said, drawing cheers from the crowd.

The president's remarks come at a time when the Trump administration remains locked in a trade war with China that has hurt some agricultural sectors.

Chinese purchases of U.S. soybeans plummeted after the trade war began last summer, according to the Department of Agriculture, although Beijing did buy a small quantity of U.S. soybeans in December.

The farming federation has continued to stand by Trump, even as its delegate body is set to debate today whether to toughen its policy stance on tariffs as a result of Trump's trade war.

Trump spoke only briefly about his trade dispute with China and said talks with Beijing are "going very well." He touted a revised trade accord between the United States, Mexico and Canada and urged Congress to ratify the deal.

And he said the Department of Agriculture is doing everything in its power to help farmers deal with the shutdown.

The Trump administration has initiated a program to help farmers affected by the tariffs. The program includes about $11 billion in direct cash assistance to farmers -- the bulk of which would go to soybean producers -- as well as $1 billion to purchase excess supply and distribute it to food banks and nutrition programs.

Without that bailout money, farmers said, their situation would be far more dire.

"If it wasn't for that, there would be some farmers who were in bad shape," said Bo Mason, who grows rice, corn and soybeans in Arkansas. An independent voter who once supported Barack Obama, Mason voted for Trump in 2016 because "there wasn't any other choice," he said. In 2020, he said, he will examine the Democratic candidate carefully.

Outside the hall, where Toby Keith music boomed, Earl Williams, a Rockford, Ill., corn and soybean farmer who is on the board of directors of the Illinois Farm Bureau, said the trade war has to end.

"We've got to do something. This is killing us in the Midwest," he said. "We've managed to alienate so many of our traditional trading partners."

Other farmers said China had it coming -- "they've manipulated our markets for years," Mason said -- but they expressed optimism that trade negotiators would soon reach an agreement.

"I think they will. The problem is China is hardheaded and Trump is a hard head, too," said Mason Sickel, who grows rice and soybeans in Arkansas. "Put a pair of those together and it will take a while to resolve the argument."

Steven McCloud, a livestock and small-grain farmer from Newton, Kan., said farmers remain "cautiously optimistic" that the trade war will come to a conclusion that will benefit them. But with the tariffs, along with bad weather, "it's been a tough year," he said.

The trade war "is going to cost us a little bit now, but a better trade deal will benefit the next generation to come," said Bob Schwenke, a corn and soybean farmer from Kentucky. He said his income may take a 5 percent hit, and if the trade war continues, it could hit 15 percent. When asked how long he would put up with such losses before getting grumpy, he quipped, "I've been grumpy all my life."

Of the standoff with Democrats over Trump's refusal to sign a spending bill without at least $5.7 billion in border wall funding, the president said: "We're fighting very hard to defend our nation." He added that ordinary Americans are missing paychecks but said many have sent him a message that "we agree with you 100 percent."

Trump's appearance highlighted the importance of the organization to him. During the shutdown, he has canceled a vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and he called off a trip to an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, later this month. Last year, Trump became the first president to address the farmers' convention since George H.W. Bush.

During his speech, Trump warned against the dangers of illegal immigration. He also criticized legal immigration programs that aim to reunite families, which he derisively calls "chain migration."

The Trump administration over the summer allowed a one-time increase of 15,000 H-2B visas for seasonal nonagricultural workers, a 45 percent increase in that category amid demands from businesses during a period of low unemployment.

Farmworkers are admitted into the country through a separate visa program, H-2A; Trump administration officials have said they are looking at streamlining the rules to offer employers more flexibility.

"It's going to be easier for them to get in than what they have to go through now," Trump said of those workers, before adding: "I know a lot about the farming world."

Business on 01/15/2019

Print Headline: Trump tells farmers he'll ease visa rules for seasonal workers

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