People coming to live in the UK from outside the EU must "add to the quality of life in Britain", immigration minister Damian Green has said.
He argued Britain does not need more "middle managers" or unskilled labour and those who settle could have to command a salary of more than £31,000.
Any British citizen who wants to bring in a non-EU spouse should also meet a minimum salary level, he added.
Labour said ministers had set out "no workable proposals" to cut immigration.
The government has pledged to cut net migration from 242,000 - the figure for the year ending September 2010 - to the "tens of thousands" last seen in the 1990s.
As part of that the number of people from outside the EU coming to the UK to work will be capped.
In his speech to the Policy Exchange in London, Mr Green referred to a report by the government's Migration Advisory Committee (Mac) which found there were up to 23 fewer jobs for British workers for every additional 100 working migrants coming from outside the EU.
He said it disproved the "old assumption" that "as immigration adds to GDP it is economically a good thing, and that therefore logically the more immigration the better, whatever the social consequences".
"That was the view of the previous government in its early years, and it is still the view of Tony Blair and some of his former advisers," he said.
"It is not my view, or the view of the vast majority of the British people.
"The key insight of the Mac's work is that the measure of a successful immigration policy is how it increases the wealth of the resident population."
Mr Green said he wanted to build a "national consensus" around immigration, adding: "Importing economic dependency on the state is unacceptable.
"Bringing people to this country who can play no role in the life of this country is equally unacceptable."
He said he wanted anyone moving to the UK to join a British spouse "to be able to integrate and be independent", which was why a requirement to speak English was being introduced.
But he said he was also proposing to set a minimum income level for any sponsor seeking to bring in a foreign spouse - and said the recommended level from Mac was between £18,600 and £25,700.
The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said that would be "hammer blow to the human rights of cross border partners and their families".
Chief executive Habib Rahman said: "They've already been hit with an age minimum (although we defeated that), language requirements and ever increasing visa fees. Now they face what is likely to be an unreasonably high income threshold.
"One might argue that this government has it in for poor people who fall in love with anyone who's not resident in the UK."
Ahead of his speech, Mr Green told BBC Radio Kent he wanted "to be much more intelligently selective about who we let come here", and that anyone individual seeking permanent settlement should be able to command a salary of between £31,000 and £49,000.
"We need to know that you're not going to be living off benefits from day one of arriving here.
"We want people either to fill skill gaps we may have... [or] we want to know that they are being offered jobs that are genuinely at a skill level.
"Similarly with students, we want to make sure that they are genuine student studying genuine courses at a genuine institution."
New specialist routes will be developed further to improve the visa system for short-term business visitors and entertainers, as well as a "young talent" scheme to encourage the entrepreneurs and scientists of the future to immigrate.
But on the subject of professions suffering from shortages, such as nursing, Mr Green said there was "no reason why Britain should have a permanent shortage of nurses" and any use of foreign workers should be temporary.
He said importing unskilled labour had "caused enough problems when there was an economic boom on" and would be completely "wrong-headed" in tougher times.
Sir Andrew Green, chairman of the campaign group Migration Watch UK, said it had to be the "right approach" to try to get immigration down by being "much more selective".
"We need to consider the common good, not just the demands of special interest groups who benefit financially from immigration," he said.
Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant said Labour agreed with the need for national consensus but there was "still a massive gap between the government's rhetoric and the reality on immigration".
"David Cameron pledged 'no ifs, no buts', net migration would be in the tens of thousands by the end of the Parliament. Yet the minister today has again set out no workable proposals to deliver it," he said.
"And the government is still weakening action on illegal immigration, abandoning checks at our border during the summer, stopping the routine fingerprinting of illegal immigrants trying to enter the UK through the Channel Tunnel, and seeing the number of people removed for breaking the rules going down not up."
The government has promised to crack down on sham and forced marriages, and last year consulted on plans to create a more formal test to define whether a relationship is genuine.
This could involve UK Border Agency case workers questioning a couple to see whether they are able to provide accurate personal details about each other and whether they agree on the facts of their relationship, for example how they met.