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During my last visit to the USA, just before I was boarding my flight at the gate on the way BACK to the UK via Germany. Right as the gate agent scans your ticket and lets you walk down the jetway to the plane, there was a CBP officer taking everybody's passports and asking them their purpose of travel to the USA and how long were they there for in a pretty relaxed and casual fashion.

I had an old J1 visa in my passport from two years ago and he quickly stated it was out of date and I should have had an ESTA to travel to the USA. Once I explained the J1 was an old visa and I wasn't travelling on it, he gave me my passport back and moved along.

Has anybody experienced this sort of thing before? I go to the USA about five or six times a year and this has only happened once on my latest trip - a CBP officer asking me my purpose of travel to the States when I'm leaving the country.

This was at the North Terminal at Detroit airport (DTW), at what I believe was gate D3. I was flying back on Lufthansa A340-600 aircraft.

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CBP occasionally conducts spot checks of departing travelers. They may be concerned about immigration status or about travelers moving cash out of the country in amounts large enough to trigger the reporting requirement without having reported it. Since customs and immigration are now handled by the same agency, a single officer can investigate both. Questions about the purpose of travel are part of such an investigation.

I've seen this mentioned on various forums and depicted on reality TV. It appears that they tend to target certain flights, perhaps because of a (perceived) greater likelihood that those flights will be transporting people likely to violate the cash restrictions. For example, passengers on flights to countries where money laundering is common are apparently more likely to be screened.

Another possible explanation is that CBP is screening departing travelers in connection with their work on a unified biometric entry-exit system. Having data collected by an officer may be useful in helping them calibrate their algorithms for automated exit screening. For example, this was a test conducted a few years ago:

Here are some relevant proposals for new federal regulations:

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People sometimes state that the US has no exit immigration. In practice, this couldn't be further from the truth.

The US uses a number of mechanisms to police exit immigration. These include electronic checks based around data provided by the airlines (via APIS, the Advanced Passenger Information System), and a number of various random checks that are carried out... well.. randomly.

What you experienced falls into one of these categories, but there's no way to tell which. It's possible that this was just a general random check, looking for nothing and anything at the same time - suspicious passengers (who might be carrying contraband), forged/modified passports, etc.

It's also possible that the electronic checks via APIS data flagged a particular passenger who they wished to detain. As this data is provided by the airline it is not possible for the person to be detained at check-in, so instead they are allowed get to the boarding area where they will be detained. In this case the officers would have had a specific names and/or photo they were looking for, but still check other passengers as a matter of course.

It's even possible that something illegal was found in a passenger checked bag during screening, and they are looking for the bags owner.

As you've discovered, they position themselves in an area where they can not be seen by the passengers, giving them no opportunity to simply leave the area without being checked. By the time the passengers see the staff they are unable to leave without going back through the check-in area - an action that the CBP staff would see and act upon.

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