* Cuba invites negotiators to Cuba for more talks
* Expectations for talks had been low (Adds Cuba statement, paragraphs 4-5)
WASHINGTON, June 18 (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba held migration talks on Friday, but there were few signs of progress as U.S. officials again protested Havana’s jailing of an American contractor on suspicion of espionage.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the talks, the third such meeting since U.S. President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, discussed progress in, and obstacles to, cooperation on migration issues.
The U.S. side called again for the immediate release of Alan Gross, a U.S. development contractor arrested in December, Crowley said in a statement.
Cuba, in a separate statement, did not mention Gross, but said the delegations had a “fruitful discussion” on ways to better combat “illegal smuggling” of immigrants.
It said it had invited the U.S. negotiators to Cuba for another round of talks late this year.
Expectations for Friday’s talks had been low, overshadowed as they were by the Gross case.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned on Thursday that Cuba’s jailing of Gross was harming prospects for the relationship, which analysts say has chilled following a string of setbacks.
Crowley said Friday’s talks “underscores our interest in pursuing constructive discussions with the government of Cuba to advance U.S. interests,” but reported no concrete progress on any of the major issues.
Negotiators are discussing ways to maintain orderly migration based on a 16-year-old accord to prevent mass exoduses from Cuba like the 1980 Mariel boatlift and the 1994 wave of boat people.
Cuba has asked to bring more consular agents to the United States, while the U.S. government is pressing for an end to travel restrictions for diplomats in both countries.
Communist-ruled Cuba also wants Washington to drop its preferential immigration treatment of Cubans who reach U.S. shores. It says the “wet foot, dry foot” policy encourages Cubans to abandon their homeland for the United States.
The immigration talks were renewed last July in New York after President George W. Bush canceled them in 2004. While both sides held out hope for better relations under Obama, movement has been slow and the arrest of Gross further strained relations.
Gross, 60, has been jailed since he was seized at the Havana airport on Dec. 4, accused of distributing prohibited satellite communications equipment to Cuban dissidents.
U.S. officials said he was only providing Internet access to Jewish groups but admitted he was working for a U.S.-funded program to promote democracy on the island and entered on a tourist visa without declaring his true intent.
He is under investigation and not yet officially charged with a crime, Cuban officials say.
Clinton, who met Gross’ wife in Washington on Thursday, said Gross was “a dedicated professional with a long history of providing assistance and support to underserved communities in dozens of countries.”
“We are deeply concerned about his welfare and poor health, and we have used every available channel to push for his release,” Clinton said. (Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Additional reporting by Jeff Franks in Havana; Editing by Peter Cooney)