The Deputy Prime Minister today outlined his party's vision for an immigration system centred on "proper controls without loopholes" and "border checks" in which people "can finally have faith".
In a swipe at his Tory coalition partners, Nick Clegg said the Government "shouldn't be obsessing about net migration figures which don't make sense" but should be "concentrating on the nitty gritty of a system that works".
Mr Clegg spelt out his credentials as a believer in the benefits of well-managed immigration as he sought to distance himself from the rhetoric of the centre right.
He said: "I'm never going to advocate pulling up the draw bridge because I think that's what people want to hear. The Liberal Democrats are never going to mimic the likes of Ukip and others, the scaremongering, the immigrant bashing, the seductive promise that all our problems will disappear if only we shut up shop and stick a closed sign on the door. We don't meet every visitor with automatic suspicion."
Mr Clegg said the Government was finally building an immigration system in line with Liberal Democrat values, one that was "open hearted, generous spirited, but not open to abuse".
In a speech designed to reach out to voters ahead of next year's general election, Mr Clegg provided a four-pronged plan for tackling the system, including action on illegal immigration, European migration, speaking English and attracting bright students from around the world.
He said: "An open economy, inclusive communities, freedom of movement, yes; freedom to claim, no. Proper controls without loopholes, border checks which count people out and count people in. In short an immigration system in which people finally can have faith. All this can be done but it takes work."
Mr Clegg spoke about his own international background, saying that, like many Britons, his roots could be "traced around the globe".
Successful immigration, he said, needs to be managed. Criticising immigration policy under the last Labour government, Mr Clegg claimed "people were constantly told one thing only to then experience another".
He said: "Labour failed spectacularly to manage that change and equally to manage public expectations."
He went on: "The answer is not tough talk; it isn't pretending that we can or should boot out every foreigner. The answer is reforming the system so that it works properly, so that we can retain the open character of our economy and the generous spirit of our society while also giving people confidence that it's not a free-for-all. The rules are fair and enforced and the system works in Britain's interest overall."
Mr Clegg argued that it is possible to "marry our ideals" about an open, welcoming Britain with the realities of running an effective immigration system.
He said: "We can keep Britain open-hearted, open-minded and open for business and at the same time ensure our hospitality is not open to abuse. It just takes a lot of work."
Mr Clegg argued that the system which the Coalition inherited was in "utter disarray", likening it to turning around an oil tanker.
He added: "To be candid, we weren't helped by the fact my Coalition partners came into Government with what is, in my view, a wrong priority. The Conservatives were completely fixated on a net migration target and specifically their pledge to get it down to tens of thousands."
Mr Clegg branded the notion "unrealistic" and said the Tories had now "softened their attachment to the net migration target" which had "made it much easier for us to get things done".
On changes to access to benefits, Mr Clegg said: "These are changes every Liberal should support because a sense of fair play is the best antidote we have to resentment and mistrust."
Mr Clegg argued that sustained action is necessary on four fronts, including further steps to "bear down" on illegal immigration.
He acknowledged "nobody exactly knows" how many people are living in Britain illegally. The Government, he announced, is "clamping down" on the growing industry of sham marriages.
He said: "We have written into the Immigration Act that we expect registrars to tell the Home Office of any suspicion they have that a couple is bogus or an individual is here illegally. We're also issuing advice directly to all registrars so they know exactly what to do."
From next year the notice period for all couples seeking to marry or enter into a civil partnership will be extended from 15 to 28 days, he added.
The Government, he said, is increasing the number of inspectors tasked with identifying businesses hiring people, including migrants, for less than the minimum wage.
He said: "Above all, if we're really going to tackle illegal immigration in any meaningful way, we must complete the job of putting proper border checks in place.
"Identifying over-stayers, restricting the access they then have to benefits and services, finding and deporting. These are all the things we can do but only once we know who is and isn't here."
Mr Clegg made the case for EU migration, stating that freedom of movement between EU member states is a "cornerstone of European integration".
"Those who wish to undo it should be careful what they wish for," he said. "The blow to UK prosperity would in my view be immense.
"But the way freedom of movement works should change as Europe changes.
"It is and always was a right to work, it was never intended as an automatic right to claim benefits but over time the distinction has become blurred."
There is a need to be "stricter and clearer" on the transition controls applied to new member states, he went on.
"This isn't about bolting the door but it is about steadying the flow of people into Britain in a way that is careful and honest."
Mr Clegg said everyone who wants to settle in Britain should speak English as the ability to communicate is essential.
He said he had told the Passport Office and DVLA that he wants them to stop subsidising translation services for people applying for passports and driving licences, assisting access to language courses instead.
Mr Clegg argued that Britain needs to remain a "magnet for the brightest and the best".
He said: "There shouldn't be a cap on student numbers, we want the world's best students in our universities and we should be encouraging them to find high-value jobs here afterwards which, in turn, create jobs and grow in our economy."
Mr Clegg also urged a "more intelligent" approach to the visas given to high- value investors.
Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps told LBC radio that Mr Clegg had been standing in the way of the coalition taking action to rein in immigration.
"The surprising thing about it is that he has never raised any of these concerns that I am aware of privately over the last few years," Mr Shapps said.
"What's more, he has actively blocked several of the common sense straightforward assessments... he's stood in the way of those things happening - for example blocked our calls to rein in EU migration."
He added: "It's very strange. You would have thought even in the background, in private you might have heard some of these things. I thought it was an extraordinary speech to make."