Immigration could be tailored to regional employment needs in a proposed post-Brexit regime.
Local areas could prioritise roles such as engineering or science according to the needs of their economies under plans outlined by the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Tougher rules could apply in sectors where migration may be undermining wages, the think tank said.
It called for a model that focuses on local labour market shortages once the country has left the European Union.
The blueprint would see the Home Office keep overall control, including enforcement, to ensure the system is not abused.
Speculation over the future shape of the UK's immigration system has been rife since the referendum in June.
Ministers are yet to outline their proposals but the approach is expected to involve restrictions on free movement.
Chris Murray, research fellow at IPPR, said: "The end of free movement offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to think creatively about how our immigration system can work for local areas.
"We are a large, diverse country with very different labour markets in different areas. Introducing a regional component to our immigration system would reflect that reality, while also protecting our borders.
"By letting local employers focus on the skills they need, we can ensure that our immigration system both reflects local employment needs while preventing the undercutting of wages in overheated sectors, which drew much support for Brexit."
Under the IPPR's proposals local enterprise partnerships and combined authorities in England would set out the most important sectors for their local economy.
This might include prioritising applications for roles in engineering, science and research or other highly skilled roles.
Local immigration councils would be set up to consult residents and visit areas that have seen increases in immigration.
The Home Office would retain an enforcement and oversight function to address concerns that the scheme could be used as a "back door" to London.
The paper, which focused on the North East as a case study, found that a tailored approach could ensure that future migration "complements the skills of existing workers" and gives the region "greater capacity to manage social change sensitively".
It said: "Two factors make a regionally tailored approach to migration possible.
"Firstly, the Brexit vote means the Government is considering the most substantial changes to immigration policy in decades, as it evaluates losing free movement within the EU and wider migration reforms.
"Secondly, a system of tough controls and frontline enforcement offers administrative capacity that was hitherto infeasible."
Earlier this month MPs and peers called for an overhaul which would see regions handed immigration powers in place of the current "one size fits all" scheme.
However, ministers have signalled that a regional approach is not on the table - and have ruled out the possibility of Scotland having its own post-Brexit immigration system.
A Home Office spokeswoman said: "Voters made it clear during the referendum that they wanted the country to take back control of immigration.
"This Government will deliver on that by building an immigration system that works for everyone.
"Once we have left the European Union it will be the Government that sets our immigration rules."