WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Friday that he's open to more overtures to Cuba, such as lifting restrictions on academic travel to the island, but not without signs of changes from the government in Havana.
"We're not there yet,'' he said. "We think it's important to see progress on issues of political liberalization, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, release of political prisoners in order for there to be the full possibility of normalization between our two countries.''
Obama also wouldn't commit to whether undocumented Haitians in the U.S. should be allowed to stay here temporarily to help stabilize the impoverished nation. He said he's "very sympathetic,'' but suggested the issue would be part of a larger effort to overhaul immigration laws.
Obama's remarks came during a meeting with reporters from regional newspapers to press his effort to overhaul the nation's healthcare system.
Several members of Congress and groups, including the leading association that promotes student travel to and from the U.S., have urged Obama to remove what they said are restrictive regulations on academic and other "purposeful'' travel to Cuba imposed by President George W. Bush in 2004. The Association of International Educators said this week that study abroad to Cuba has "declined precipitously.''
In April, Obama lifted travel and gift restrictions for those with relatives in Cuba and eased restrictions on U.S. telecommunications firms to do business there. Last week, the administration resumed talks with Cuban officials on what Obama called a "narrow set of issues,'' chiefly migration.
However, Obama said additional steps won't come soon.
"We're taking it step by step, seeing if, as we change some of the old approaches that we've been taking, we are seeing some movement on the Cuban government side,'' he said. "I don't think it's going to be happening overnight. I think it's going to be a work in progress.''
Haitian advocates — and most of South Florida's congressional delegation — have urged the administration to add Haitians to the list of foreigners eligible for Temporary Protected Status, an immigration status that allows them to work. Obama said he's not ready to take that step, though he expressed sympathy for the plight of Haitians in this country.
A resolution is "going to be part of a broader conversation about immigration,'' he said. In June, Obama invited congressional leaders to the White House in an effort to jump-start efforts to overhaul U.S. immigration laws. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is working with a group of lawmakers on the issue and White House officials have said they'd to see legislation pass this fall, or early next year.
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