The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission says the UK must not "cower in fear and fret" about admitting "clever foreigners".
Trevor Phillips was delivering a speech to mark the 40th anniversary of Enoch Powell's "rivers of blood" speech.
He said the public must not "confuse immigration and terrorism" and called for a new debate because of “creeping resentment" towards immigration.
The government says new measures will ensure Britain has tougher controls.
Mr Phillips delivered his speech at the Midland Hotel, which is the same Birmingham hotel where Mr Powell sparked a major public debate in 1968.
The then shadow frontbencher warned of social tensions in pockets of Britain - such as Wolverhampton - if mass immigration continued.
He compared racial tensions in the United States to the Roman poet Virgil's description of "the River Tiber foaming with much blood" and said anti-discrimination laws were like "throwing a match on to gunpowder".
While we cower in fear and fret about whether to admit clever foreigners from other nations - America, Australia and Canada are already sailing on that tide of talent
"We have to convince all young people that this is a fair country that will give them a fair chance."
Mr Phillips also later told the BBC that the UK had to take steps to encourage "talented" immigrants to come to this country.
He said: "We need to make sure that we are a country that's attractive to those immigrants, and that also we can integrate them or give them a place in an integrated society.
"We need a policy of managed migration but we also need a policy of active integration to make sure that we can get the best of immigration but also minimise the costs of it."
Immigration minister Liam Byrne said that the British public was "right to demand changes to Britain's immigration system".
He added: "That is why 2008 sees the biggest changes for 45 years including a points system like the one in Australia, a single border force, compulsory ID cards for foreign nationals and the reintroduction for a system to count people in and out of Britain so we know precisely who is here."
Shadow home secretary David Davis said Mr Phillips was raising "a brave and timely warning" about losing control of immigration.
"Whilst managed immigration is for the benefit of the country, uncontrolled immigration can lead to serious problems for the whole nation," he said.
A spokeswoman for the UK Border Agency said policy changes would ensure Britain had "one of the toughest borders in the world".
"Understanding the impacts of migration on communities and public services is essential, which is why the Migration Impacts Forum (MIF) was set up," she added.
"We need to strike a balance in Britain's migration policy, weighing the economic benefits with frontline feedback about wider impacts."
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